Digital marketing relies heavily on data, technology and what can be measured, but there is an urgent need for marketers to make sense of the data and, crucially, to understand what it can and can’t do – which is where a history lesson can help.

Tricia Wang, self-styled global tech ethnographer and co-founder of Sudden Compass, believes the business of marketing technology has become so complex and opaque “that it just kind of feels magical”.

But, speaking at a recent behavioural science conference, she cautioned that magical solutions are not always what they seem.

She asked the audience to consider European explorers’ wonder at the adaptability of corn when they reached South America – they marvelled at the way the crop was used to sustain huge populations.

When they brought corn back to Europe, however, and it quickly became a staple food, it led to a major health crisis. Huge numbers of people became sick with pellagra, a niacin deficiency, yet they didn’t in corn-consuming new world countries. Why?

Because in explorers’ clamour to embrace corn, they failed to embrace how people in the new world prepared it, Wang explained. The process of soaking corn before cooking caused “nixtamalisation”, and enabled the niacin to be used by the body.

Extracting the ROI out of big data is a little like getting the nutrition out of corn, she suggested. What businesses need to unite creative and performance marketing – and allow the value to be extracted from data – is consumer insights from “thick data”.

Thick data is the term Wang has coined to help make human-based insights sound enticing and valuable to people with a quantification bias. (For more, read WARC’s report: Using ‘thick data’ to get past quantification bias.)

“We’ve been putting too much pressure on machine intelligence to reach customers and really not enough pressure on human intelligence to understand people,” she said.

“The lesson here is that to really understand customers we have to stop treating adtech tools, much less any kind of technology, as a magical solution. We need to rebalance.”

Sourced from WARC