Data tells a story, writes Ken Goldstein, but sometimes you have to dig to find it.
All week I have been trying to devise a clean getaway post for the year 2012 and it has been a struggle. Then performance on demand, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan did the heavy lifting for me in this weekend’s edition of her column, Declarations. Because I can’t say it any better than she does, here is an extended excerpt from her article on what she got correct and wrong in covering this year’s Presidential Election, in particular, what she got quite right:
In writing about what struck as the president’s essential aloofness, I said there were echoes of it even in his organization. I referred to a recent hiring notice from the Obama 2012 campaign. “It read like politics as done by Martians. The ‘Analytics Department’ is looking for ‘predictive Modeling/Data Mining’ specialists to join the campaign’s ‘multi-disciplinary team of statisticians,’ which will use ‘predictive modeling’ to anticipate the behavior of the electorate. ‘We will analyze millions of interactions a day, learning from terabytes of historical data, running thousands of experiments, to inform campaign strategy and critical decisions.’ “
This struck me as “high tech and bloodless.” I didn’t quite say it, but it all struck me as inhuman, unlike any politics I’d ever seen.
It was unlike any politics I’d ever seen. And it won the 2012 campaign. Those “Martians” were reinventing how national campaigns are done. They didn’t just write a new political chapter with their Internet outreach, vote-tracking data-mining and voter engagement, especially in the battleground states. They wrote a whole new book. And it was a masterpiece.
Hats off. In some presidential elections, something big changes, and if you’re watching close you can learn a lesson. This was mine: The national game itself has changed…
For those who followed the FiveThirtyEight blog by newly minted celebrity Nate Silver most of the year, the numbers were the story, and the importance of understanding the underlying truth to the numbers brought a new tone to political commentary. Data tells a story, but the story is seldom obvious. You have to dig through numbers to see what they are saying. Statistics don’t create strategy, they inform it. You try an unending number of contact experiments in outreach, measure tactical responses carefully against controls, see what is working and what is not, reevaluate and act. The secret is, you must do this on a one-to-one basis, scale personal interaction without treating people as a mass, without using a blunt instrument to address pushback and slow acceptance.
Data can be aggregated and cut, but it comes from somewhere, individual people. If you read the data in geographic and demographic segments, it can help guide both strategy and tactics, allowing you to be responsive in near real-time. Your core remains your ideas — conviction, creativity, and vision — but how you express those ideas better to achieve consensus, how you improve your message, how you harness the power of a devoted following to add their deeply personal beliefs to the mix and build a unified voice with impact, that is where data is your friend. Yet it’s critical to fully appreciate and understand that friend, with humility, with nuance.
There isn’t much commentary I recall from the endless talking heads covering the election, but one almost throwaway interchange I remember was led by longtime political analyst Jeff Greenfield. He was admiring just how expert Nate Silver’s predictions had been across the board, calling the electoral votes in advance for all 50 states, when he sort of joked, and I paraphrase from memory, “Well, I guess those of us who got into journalism because we liked English in school so much we could use it as an excuse to avoid math, we can’t make that assumption anymore.” That simple concept seemed profound to me. In the same way we can no longer draw clear lines in organizations that identify and confine analog departments, the separation between language and numbers in our thinking has naturally blended. They may appear to be separate areas of study, but our connected world of internet communication, social media, dramatic global speed, and authority transfer to communities has put words and mathematics on a collision course of unified discipline. As integrated tools, they are perhaps becoming more the same than they are different, inseparable in decision-making.
The lesson here is hardly isolated to politics, it is a story of marketing at large. If you have spent any time trying to understand e-commerce, you know well the power of data and the risk associated with ignoring it. Great products and services have no substitute, but as a former boss taught me long ago, good marketing helps bad product fail faster, and bad marketing can undermine the best of innovation. Both right and left brain are now requirements to win in business. Fail to master either at your own peril.
My last word on this election year: Analytics.
Necessarily reflective of authentic, individual voice.
Thank you so much for continuing to share this journey with me. Here’s to an informed and inspiring new year!
This post was previously published on Corporate Intelligence Radio
Photo by crobj / flickr