The new data struggle, or, Why you’re still wasting your marketing budget

Avery Booker is the founder and CEO of Enflux, the world's first predictive global influence mining and monitoring platform.

The buzzwords never end. A proliferation of tools, platforms, and services now pitch their “social listening” abilities, databases of “influencers,” or “intelligence,” promising companies new ways to augment their marketing efforts and easily tap into new audiences. Platforms dazzle with slick dashboards and videos, startups burst at the seams with smiling salespeople, and testimonials describe recent influencer-attended product launches.

What brand executives or marketing professionals aren’t seeing from the vast majority of social listening tools, influencer management platforms, and business intelligence firms is any real value. Why? Because they’re all doing variations of the same thing and using the same basic pool of data. And why are they doing that? Because it’s extremely difficult to do it any other way.

So in the end, 2017 will be much the same as 2016: companies will continue poring over last quarter’s data for insights while throwing marketing dollars at problems and hoping for the best.

Who (and what) influences audience is as dynamic and ever-changing as fashion trends.

The challenge

Even companies that see some value from big data analysis often struggle to use it effectively or even reconcile spending with impact. Understanding basic market trends and where one’s company sits in comparison to the competition only goes so far in deciding how to reallocate marketing budget in the next quarter, choosing where to open the next brick-and-mortar store, or expanding into a new market. 

Across the board, what decision-makers lack is information that ultimately gives them confidence: information that can pinpoint future opportunities and save or make—rather than waste more—money.

What’s also needed is impartial data that spans global teams. Executives in New York, London, or Paris receive glowing updates from joint-venture partners or teams in difficult markets like China or Brazil, or recommendations from those teams to engage in high-priced campaigns with vague promises of success but no proof, and little follow-up. This is, quite simply, because most “influencers” identified by third-party firms or tools aren’t actually influential.

Recently, a European client asked us to look into the impact of an ongoing China-centric marketing effort by their digital marketing partner in Hong Kong. Despite reassurances from the marketing team that their expensive efforts were engaging a vast Chinese audience, we saw little more than a blip in real brand influence or audience enthusiasm, and that blip did not coincide with marketing pushes—indicating that any impact was coincidental, and marginal at best.

Looking at the surface level, as social listening tools generally do, this campaign would have been reported to the client as a success. That’s because these tools can only stick to the superficial, pulling from the same public data sources and calculating the same likes, shares, and comments. Ultimately, the “influential” people identified by that marketing partner in China had follower counts artificially inflated with bots and fake fans, causing our client to waste money marketing their company to a legion of nonexistent people.

When building Enflux from the ground up, we took a significantly different, forward-facing approach that’s far more comprehensive—and difficult—by design.

We did this because of our team’s knowledge of marketing challenges and innovations in data science, and our experience seeing clients either missing tremendous opportunity or weary of spending more money without any provable return on investment.

Stemming the flow

Two key factors are crucial to capitalize on opportunities or stem the flow of wasted marketing budgets: Trust and Triangulation. 

For example, when looking to collaborate with “influencers”—or even established celebrities—in any market, any success will be grounded in consumer trust. Do people actually trust the people that an influencer management platform pulls out of its static database? Do those “fashion bloggers” actually have any legitimacy when posting about specific ares like jewelry? Cars? Footwear? Do audiences engage positively to their posts or ironically repost? There is, after all, such thing as bad engagement, and influence is not constant across the board. Are the kinds of people that these influencer marketing firms, platforms, and “experts” finding actually trustworthy when they actively want brands to find them? Do their audiences believe these individuals care about one particular brand when they’ve already posted about hundreds of others? 

Influence, like trends, is dynamic and ever-changing. If marketing teams or third-party agencies can’t prove that an individual truly will influence others (or reach an audience that is likely to be influenced), they’re not worth your time or marketing budget.

By triangulating internal and external data, social media and online impact, Enflux showed that a client’s marketing partner in China was failing to drive engagement, and any engagement that did occur was organic and by chance. As such, the initiative was ineffective.

Our data suggested that the client’s marketing firm was failing to reach the right people, leading to indifferent audience sentiment and a lack of true engagement. There may have been some reposts and “likes,” but that’s all window-dressing when you’re spending tens of thousands (or millions) on a new and unfamiliar market and need consumers who actually care about your brand.

This ties into the second imperative when looking to more wisely spend marketing budget: Triangulation. Again, most tools or firms on the market look at data in a siloed, limited fashion—because it’s easy to do it that way and that’s how it has always been done. But data can only really benefit a company if it’s put into a more comprehensive context. Our company, Enflux, never looks at data in a vacuum. We take multiple, triangulated data sources and data-points to provide deeper, more accurate insights.

Identifying areas of business opportunity takes multiple, triangulated data sources and data-points, something that traditional marketing tools fail to take into consideration.

The butterfly effect

What happens on one online platform bleeds into another—whether it be activity on WeChat in China causing a butterfly effect on Facebook in Southern California or a company’s financial returns, weather patterns, or tourism trends feeding activity on Instagram (or vice versa). Each social media platform has its own types of engagement, which can be hard to reconcile. To address this, we developed the Enflux Interaction Score (EIS), a proprietary measure of the ability of a person or trend to motivate audiences. This score incorporates dozens of individual measurements into one consistent score spanning different types of online activity.

Not all audience engagement is positive, as we found in a recent study on rainwear.

One example of how we put the EIS to use is for a client that was looking at their performance in the US market. To do this, we dug into far more than social media—something that social listening tools simply aren’t designed for—and layered thousands of data sources and millions of data-points (automatically tailored just for this client) to identify underserved cities that would be the most interested and inclined to buy our client’s products. We then predicted how the client could best engage audiences in these cities, and what types of activation they would be most interested in (Pop-ups? Store openings? Giveaways?) 

It’s this kind of data that can ultimately help reallocate funds away from trial and error and towards marketing efforts that actually generate revenue.

Ultimately, data is only as valuable to your company as what you’re able to do with it. If this data doesn’t ultimately help you make more confident, productive decisions and stop wasting on underperforming marketing efforts, it’s time to move on. Today, it’s imperative that companies look to firms, platforms, and tools to prove their true value. We’ve done this through a comprehensive and contextual, forward-facing approach, one that’s key in a fast-moving market, to give clients the ability to seize opportunities, make intelligent decisions, and spot lucrative trends ahead of the competition.

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