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How Data Fails to Deliver

By Dan McDonough, Jr.

It takes real integrity as a journalist to issue a correction. Washington Post reporter Chris Ingraham showed that exact brand of integrity when he reversed his position on naming Red Lake County, Minnesota, “the absolute worst place to live in America.”

Ingraham’s mistake, of course, was innocent enough. His assessment was based entirely on data — and very reliable data, at that. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s natural amenities scale, which combines six measurements of climate, topography, and water area that “reflect environmental qualities most people prefer,” was the data set upon which Ingraham relied. He used this data to stack-rank every county in the continental U.S., and Red Lake was at the bottom.

Aside from a stack of hate mail that came in pretty quickly, Ingraham got something else in the days after his initial assessment ran in the Post: He received an invitation to visit Red Lake County. What a visit it turned out to be! It wasn’t long before Ingraham was back peddling on his data-supported pronouncement for Red Lake County. “That’s what the spreadsheet said,” he explained regarding his slander against an entire county. After visiting, he recognized that the data didn’t tell the whole story.

The data didn’t factor in the people, a key ingredient. And a hyper-focus on data and analytics can have a crippling effect in business, too, sometimes leading one to make the wrong assessment.

Simply relying on data sets will leave you blind to the important elements of human emotion. Also, data typically doesn’t help with true innovation. “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups,” Steve Jobs famously said in 1998. “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” In the late 19th century, if the current marketing analytics complex were at hand, all the data would have indicated that consumers wanted faster horses. Henry Ford had a different idea.

Michael Schrage, an author and research fellow at MIT, framed the situation well in a Harvard Business Review post many years ago:

Marketers worldwide grew up with John Wanamaker’s famous marketing aphorism, “Half of my advertising is wasted; I just don’t know which half.” That pithy quote is now a misleading anachronism; we can know which half. Digital media and tracking technologies, along with dramatically improved analytics, now mean that serious marketers — if they really care to know — can have an excellent idea of just how effective (or wasteful) their advertising really is. Ignorance is now a choice, not an excuse.

At the same time, incredibly bright data scientists, such as Schrage, can quickly pivot to rendering the front-end creative process useless, with a deadly focus on data. It’s the type of mistake that Ingraham made in his reporting in the Post. The best approach is using the art of creativity to produce messaging, and the science of measurement to analyze. Then rinse and repeat. Or, as Schrage says, “New media should inspire new metrics. New metrics should create new accountability. New accountability should provoke and promote new kinds of creativity.”

As Ed Lynes said on this blog last November, messaging continues to befuddle even those organizations with the largest resources. And that’s important, because it doesn’t matter if you’re in front of the right people if you’re not telling the story they want to hear. A marginal investment in message can pay more dividends than the most advanced data operation in the world.

Yet so many marketers and start-up leaders focus so heavily on the tools, the metrics, the A/B testing, and the automation, that the substance of the message — which should come first in the process of developing any go-to-market plan — is often relegated to an afterthought. I wrote in more detail last October about how the exclusive focus on tactics often creates a void in strategy and messaging, even though strategy and messaging are what help build an organization’s connection to its prospects.

The lesson to Ingraham, and to all of us in business, is that analytics should be used primarily to measure, not primarily to create. That still involves the art of brainstorming and creativity. That’s what gives us something to measure.

“What they’ve got to say, it’s bullshit,” Red Lake County Commissioner Charles Simpson told Citipages after the original article about the county ran in the Post. That’s a more poetic way to say, “don’t always blindly trust the data.”

And how did Ingraham correct his mistake after experiencing Red Lake’s real, human story? Well, he picked up his family and moved there!

Dan McDonough is a founding partner at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, let Woden help. Read our free Storytelling Blueprint, or send us an email at to discuss how Woden can help build your story.