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Why Marketers Can’t Afford to Separate Data and Creativity

DataCreative_blogMy friends would call me a “creative” type. Actually, what they’d call me isn’t appropriate for this blog. But if you asked them explicitly, in a multiple-choice format, where nothing vulgar was allowed, they’d call me a creative type.

I paint, I write, I play jazz, I tell jokes on stages, and there was a short time in college when I unsuccessfully experimented with rap music (don’t ask).

As a content marketer, I don’t think I’m particularly unique in these traits. Most of us have some type of “creative” background. It’s why we do what we do, and it’s why we’re good at it.

But there’s a caveat: that aspect of our personality is also the reason for most of our failures.

Why Marketing Content Fails

I work for Simply Measured. If you’re new to this blog, we’re a social analytics software company. To spare you the elevator pitch: I market marketing software to marketers…it’s pretty Meta.

When I started here almost two years ago, I wasn’t at all what I’d call a “data-driven” marketer. My decisions were based on gut feelings, and in my previous marketing roles, I’d been mildly successful as a result.

I was a talented writer, had good intuition, and could quote Drake. I was way too strung out on confidence. (I promise that’s the last time I’ll quote Drake).

I had all the answers, but I wasn’t testing or measuring against that intuition, so while I knew when something worked or didn’t, I had no idea why. For the first several months I was at Simply Measured, I was doing what you could call “maintenance marketing.” I created content and social campaigns with the main purpose of maintaining a brand presence in the space, but I didn’t understand how to grow that presence other than “do more.”

Do More Than “Do More”

This is an endemic problem in the content and social marketing space. So many times, our answer is “do more.” If we create more content, the charts will go up and to the right, right?

But then things stall, and we don’t bother looking for the reason why. Many times, we just brush it off as a fluke.

Why? Because we constantly pit creativity and measurement against each other. On the surface, data seems like a natural enemy to creativity. Creativity, by definition, is something that innately comes from our imagination. It’s original. It’s not spawned from a test tube.

This has hindered the crap out of us; not just as marketers, but also as creators. If you write a joke, and it kills, aren’t you going to try to mimic that response? Does that make it less creative? Creativity shouldn’t be blind, we just happen to be in an industry where it has x-ray vision and that can be terrifying because we don’t always understand it.

Quit Fearing Data

Big data is a big monster under the bed, threatening to swallow our time and bandwidth whole. It scares us because we forget that data analysis is a supporting function, meant to enhance our creative process by informing it.

My wife is a therapist, and aside from having an endless supply of stand-up material because of this, I’ve had the luck of developing my career as a marketer as she learned and practiced her own craft. It’s a fascinating parallel. She analyzes and helps clients develop the tools and skills to create more meaningful relationships and improve their emotional well-being. This isn’t because she knows what “works” best for everyone. It’s because she’s done the research, and seen enough iterations to help guide informed choices.

That’s all data is doing for your creative process.

Working with an analytics company, every one of my coworkers is an Excel geek. My CEO is an analyst at heart, my VP has a background as a data scientist, and our Director of Demand Gen sees the world in marketing metrics like he’s Neo in The Matrix.

After a couple thousand iterations, some very painful lessons, and plenty of failures, I started making creative decisions by using as much data as possible. That data makes me more creative; because I’m not bogged down blindly trying to move a needle I have no understanding of. I’m making confident decisions that I can build upon.

The creative process isn’t a straight line. It’s cyclical. We conceptualize, create, finish a project, analyze (and overanalyze) how “good” it is, and then start a new one.

When a painter does an awesome oil landscape of a Tuscan village, they don’t paint that same scene over and over. They make note to reiterate a few key aspects and components that were successful, learn from the mistakes, and start something new, with that knowledge in tow.

If you’re a creator, in any capacity, you never just STOP making things. The goal is to make them BETTER than you used to.

Marketing programs are no exception to the creative process, but just like a painting, if you don’t analyze what you can improve, you’ll keep painting the same stick figures over and over.

Kevin Shively

I lead marketing for Simply Measured. Recovering journalist. My team is embarrassed of my hilarious jokes. Firm believer that the best marketers are the best storytellers and the best storytellers use the best data.

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