Hillary Clinton’s loss is a warning to marketers: big data won’t save you

The Democratic party campaign bet everything on data analytics, but it wasn’t enough. We need to stop treating voters—or customers—like lines on a spreadsheet

Hillary Clinton

(Melina Mara/Washington Post/Getty)

It seems insensitive, somehow, to be asking so soon what this week’s stunning U.S. presidential election outcome has to teach marketers. And yet once or twice in a generation, from Kennedy’s use of television to Obama’s of social media, these things have a way of being watershed events in the evolution of this craft. Better to ask the question while it’s all still fresh, before the events still ahead eclipse this moment and people have time to concoct their excuses. So here it is, the one thundering lesson of this election for the future of business: data is stupid.

The Democrats’ bet on data analytics during this campaign verged at times on smug hubris. The name of Elan Kriegel, the campaign’s director of analytics, wasn’t one we heard much in the heat of battle, but the influence of his team’s work was apparently pervasive. The campaign was often characterized as “data-based”, with algorithms directing most strategic decisions, including what to say, where, when and to whom.  “[It] has guided almost every aspect of what we do,” said Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook in one interview, calling data analytics “the invisible guiding hand.”

That alone wouldn’t prove data was stupid if the enemy was doing the same thing with it. But they weren’t. In fact, Trump said early and often that big data was “overrated”. Though swaggering Dems mocked his position, and Hillary’s data strategy had roots in Obama’s vaunted digital marketing legacy, Trump insisted, “Obama got the votes much more so than his data-processing machine [did]. And I think the same is true with me.” He was right. And so, to the steaming heap of speculation about how this happened must be added the fact that the person who lost relied on math, and the person who won relied on emotion.

It’s at this point I guess I’m supposed to say that algorithms have their place, but I’m not feeling it today. I can’t imagine a more comprehensive repudiation of data analytics as the future of marketing than what happened on Tuesday night, and we marketers are damned fools if we don’t think long and hard about the faith we’re placing in machines to do our jobs for us. It’s time to stop pretending the consumer can be optimized. The best we can do, the best we have ever been able to do, is to listen to them. It’s time marketers got out from behind their monitors and back on to the streets, where the truth has always been.

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2 comments on “Hillary Clinton’s loss is a warning to marketers: big data won’t save you

  1. I am responding to Bruce Philp’s statement “data is stupid”. Data is just data, it’s an input for further consumption. Consumption such as viewing (by humans), input into an algorithm (developed by humans), moved into other applications like Excel (for further work by humans) among other uses. The outputs derived from the data by human means, directly or indirectly, must be seen as results from tools for human interpretation and consideration not for blind action on the outputs. Data is just data with no agenda. One could say data is “smart” enough to leave interpretation to humans.

    • Thanks for reading. I guess I’d say two things by way of clarification. First, we agree. I think you are essentially saying that data is “stupid” insofar as it offers no value without interpretation. Past that, my argument is that the promise of data analytics as a substitute for real human insight is clearly much further in the future than a lot of the self-styled boffins in the marketing world would have us believe. In my industry, we are too often using it as a substitute for thinking and empathy rather than an adjunct to those things. I’d guess we might agree on that, too…