Approach Your Data Like a Historian

calipitchel on 23rd of May 2016

Approach Your Data Like a Historian

I’m a trained historian. I spent the better part of the past 10 years studying the past, collecting some graduate degrees, and thinking I wanted to be a history professor. After two years of coursework in a PhD program, I took a one-semester leave for a much-needed mental break. Almost four years after what was supposed to be a brief respite, I’m the Director of Marketing at a digital analytics consultancy. This might not seem like a natural career move. What does the humanities have to do with web and mobile app analytics? At first the transition felt a bit awkward. I had never taken a business class, let alone looked at a Google Analytics dashboard. But what I’ve learned in the past 12 months is that historians and growth marketers have a lot to learn from one another. Here are three things I think historians can teach marketers who make data-driven decisions:

1. Be humble.

A historian requires a posture of curiosity, an open mindset, and also a strong sense of humility. You have to arrive at the text without all the answers. The sources can—and almost always will—challenge your assumptions. Is this not true for data? All too often we see data as a capital T truth—hard numbers, fact, science. But even data is meaningless without interpretation, and because so much depends on that interpretation, data analysis demands the same integrity required of an historian. If you think you know all the answers when you approach the data, it’s likely you’ll confirm your bias. (This is a very human thing to do, by the way.) When asked about truth, data, and analysis, Historian John Fea suggested that, “Data means nothing until it becomes part of the story that the analyst wants to tell. This does not mean that the facts are not important. If the story that the analyst tells is not based on evidence, it will be a bad story and irresponsible analysis.” A growth marketer must first acknowledge his or her position and then meet the data appropriately—fully aware of the bias that is just part of being human. It’s trite, but true: knowledge is power. And just knowing your subjectivity can (and should) come to bear on the interpretation of data. It’s easy to choose pride over humility, especially as a marketer prized for your acumen and industry expertise. But pride and relying on your instinct can have negative implications for your users’ experience. One way to combat this and ensure you’re creating a good (and high-converting) online experience, is to create a culture of testing. Testing not only allows you to optimize a user’s experience, it can substantiate and challenge your assumptions. When you trust the data—and not just your gut—you can pivot and respond to the needs of your audience, creating a cost savings or generating more revenue. In other words, humility is good business.   

2. Empathy is everything.

One of the greatest lessons I learned as a historian was the importance of empathy. The Dictionary defines empathy as “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” Studying the past was essentially a proving ground for how to relate to everyone around me, not just historical actors. One of the difficult tasks of the historian, according to Fea, is to get rid of his or her “contemporary understanding of the world and [try] to see the world from another perspective—the perspective of someone living in what many historians refer to as the ‘foreign country’ of the past. Historians empathize with dead people and in the process we learn how to empathize in our contemporary lives as well.” Empathy must also inform the way in which we interpret data. In its simplest form, the goal of empathy is understanding. And understanding a client—their challenges, their objectives, their business—is essential to any engagement. This reminds me of a client. They had a form on their website that required a captcha. We’ve all filled these out, some more successfully than others. This client in particular was seeing a huge drop in users at this point in the funnel. In fact, 70% of people who filled out the captcha failed. The marketing team alerted the IT team. Their response? “That’s the point!” The IT team wanted it to be hard. What they were missing entirely was an understanding of the end user’s experience. Their lack of empathy contributed to a garbage user experience, likely at the expense of customers (and revenue).

3. Interpretation matters—a lot.

In the discipline of history, you’d be hard pressed to find a historian who believes in an objective interpretation of the past. It’s impossible to capture a historical event or actor and call it truth. Data is much the same. There is indeed an objective truth in data, as there are certain objective truths in history. “But [a] historical fact is only useful when we explore what it means. And it is possible that two different historians might come up with two different, even contradictory, stories about what this fact means.” The same applies to everyone who analyzes data. Data alone is meaningless, and outside of its interpretation, it isn’t actionable—and the C-suite demands actionable data. Two marketers can approach a single data set and walk away with differing, even contradictory, insights. There are natural checks for this in the history discipline. Dr. Fea reminds us that “historians just can’t make stuff up. Historians work in communities. When historians use evidence in irresponsible ways, they will usually be called-out by those who are part of their communities of discourse, namely other historians who write reviews. This kind of “check” is not always perfect, and can often get political, but it is still essential.” Growth marketers get a lot of pressure from senior leadership to deliver—you’re tasked with growing the business after all. I understand those demands acutely, and I’ve felt the temptation to ask different questions of the data in order to protect myself or my strategy. But when you obscure the truth or misrepresent the facts, you hurt the business and you hurt yourself. Data-driven marketers, just like historians, must operate in a community. The work will always be better for the extra eyes and accountability. And when you expose your needs to the rest of the team, they’ll show up to support you.

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