Blog

18 July 2019

Unknown Unknowns

How to uncover the secrets in your data

“There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. There are also known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the things we don’t know we don’t know. These tend to be the difficult ones.”

Donald Rumsfeld wasn’t talking about marketing when he spoke these words (and this blog is certainly not the place to get into what he was talking about). But the quote does summarise a big problem facing marketers in the age of Big Data. 

There are things we know - all the data we have about our customers, our campaigns, and our business. There are things we know we don’t know - the gaps in our knowledge that we work hard to fill with better measurement, more relevant datasets, deeper analytic insights. 

But then there are the unknown unknowns. The things that are reducing our revenue, slowing our growth and holding us back, but we can’t start fixing them because we don’t even know they exist.   

There isn’t a piece of software or technology you can buy to help you find these unknown unknowns. Being prepared for them requires a mindset shift, an ongoing process where you don’t just listen to what the data is saying, you look for what it’s not saying and constantly question whether it’s the right data in the first place. 

It’s a process that’s at the heart of Marketing Intelligence and it marks the difference between marketing that’s reactive, tactical and executional (the normal kind) and marketing that’s proactive, strategic and solves business-level problems (the awesome kind).

Don’t think what, think why

There’s an apocryphal story about the owner of a bar in Boston. The night the Red Sox win the World Series, people in the city go nuts, cheering, dancing and singing in the streets.

The bar owner (who’s not a baseball fan) sees the celebrations outside – and sells more drinks that night than he’s ever sold before.

The next day, he has a not-very-bright idea. He starts paying people to sing and dance outside his bar every night, thinking that it’s the celebrations that led to his big sales.

But - spoiler alert - it doesn’t work. The nightly manufactured celebrations have no effect. In fact, he makes even less money because his regulars are put off by all the noise – and he has to keep paying for his fake crowd.

This is a classic unknown unknown. The bar owner doesn’t know what’s affecting his sales and he doesn’t even know it’s something he has to look for. 

And marketers are often in the same position. We’ve got masses and masses of data telling us what our customers do. Clicks, social metrics, site visits, return visits, sales, cart abandonments, and so on and so on and so on. But what we really need to know is why a customer takes any given action. 

We might see a click on a social post lead to a conversion. Great. The two are certainly linked. But that doesn’t mean we should start pumping all our budget into social posts. We need to know the why behind the click - maybe it was payday, maybe they already seen a TV ad and were searching for reviews, maybe their friend sent them a link. Because, unless we can grasp that why, we can’t make success repeatable and we’ll end up wasting budget on the wrong things. 

Unless we keep the power of unknown unknowns in mind, we won’t be as rigorous in finding that why.  

Keep an open mind

Here’s an example of what I mean. We were working with a business who asked us to help drive more web conversions from their digital campaigns. 

So we did what we’re good at - we connected all their customer data, media data and business data, and we added in some more datasets to get a better picture of their audience’s online and offline influences, then we set our data scientists loose on it all. 

They found all sorts of ways to drive more conversions, because that’s what they’re good at. But they also discovered something much more important. They found out that the brand’s audience was actually four completely different audiences, who behaved differently, were influenced by different things, and - crucially - had different value to the business. 

We weren’t asked to find these audiences. But because we had an open mind during our analytics process, and because the brand was open to finding out about its unknown unknowns, we were able to build media campaigns that did more than just drive conversions - they made sure we were driving conversions from the most valuable customers.  

Of course, our priority as marketers should be to solve for the challenges we do know about. To do anything else would be basically impossible. But there is enormous value in keeping an open mind while we do this, so we don’t miss the challenges we weren’t even aware of, and so we can find even more valuable answers to those challenges.

Find out more about Marketing Intelligence and how you can get it, here