THINK Contributor

What happens when data drives creativity

By , October 18, 2016

When Douglas Bowman, Google’s first visual designer, departed the company in 2009, he blogged that he was proud of the work his team had produced, but trying to meld creative design into an engineering culture wasn’t the way he wanted to spend his days.

“When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems,” he wrote. “Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data … and that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions.” As an example, he cited one team testing 42 shades of blue in order to pick the one to use in its design.

While Bowman didn’t fault Google for its data-driven approach, he said, “I won’t miss a design philosophy that lives or dies strictly by the sword of data.”

Creatives see data differently

Marketing and product executives see Bowman’s experience as an extreme. “In the case of Google, clicks are money,” pointed out Clair Whitmer, Director of Digital Operations for San Francisco–based publisher Maker Media. “It’s a unique case, where their product is the design and so they became obsessed with data.” Google’s business is so big, she said, that the right shade of blue could very well have an impact on its revenue.

Though Whitmer can’t imagine many other businesses in that position, seven years after Bowman’s departure (to Twitter), data’s influence on creative teams has only grown. “In the past, people didn’t have the data, so creative was judged subjectively,” said Marc Engelsman, Vice President of Strategy and Analytics at Digital Brand Expressions, a digital marketing agency in Princeton, New Jersey. “Over time, we understood we had gained the ability to measure results in a different way.”

Used properly, data can provide creative teams with critical information about a brand’s customers, a website’s users, or an ad campaign’s target. In fact, said Whitmer, she often finds her creative teams more open to using analytics than the businesspeople involved: “The design team is often running tests on specific ideas where businesspeople often get committed to a vision even before their testing starts.”

Of course, creatives and business professionals often rely on different types of data. The business side uses market research to identify trends and opportunities, for example, while designers and writers require data that can guide their initial efforts, then provide feedback on what’s working and what’s not. 

In some cases, the data can be simple and clear. For example, Engelsman recalled testing a health-care client’s marketing copy to learn whether “bladder cancer testing” or “bladder cancer screening” drew more clicks. The fact that “testing” was the distinct winner gave his team a strong indication of the kind of wording that would be most effective. 

However, Englesman noted that applying data to creativity isn’t always that easy. “Data identifies where the problems lie,” he said. “Users might be on the website, but not taking any action. That might indicate a usability problem, or it might be a content problem. You have to do further research to understand why users aren’t taking the next step.” Data, he noted, requires interpretation and thought.

The need to dig in

Because creative teams want to successfully communicate their message, they value data that tells them whether their efforts are working at both the strategic and execution levels. For example, A/B tests on webpage prompts can help determine an element’s placement, while how often readers access three-year-old articles can aid in developing a content strategy.  

“This is not a new thing to online and user-experience creatives,” Whitmer pointed out. “In some form or another, to them this is industry-standard.”

Others might require a little nudging. For them, “Share data as a guide,” Englesman advised. “Don’t dictate using ‘test’ versus ‘screen’ in the copy. Position data as more directional, and encourage applying it to the creative process.” After a campaign launches, he added, enforce data’s influence by sharing performance intelligence and saying, “Hey, that ad’s kicking butt.” That way, you not only use data to elicit positive feedback, but provide an incentive to continue leveraging it going forward. 

Englesman believes that data “should be used to influence decision-making, not do the decision-making.” Though Google might be an exception, he said, “I just don’t believe testing shades of blue is going to make that much of a difference. I can see blue versus green, but blue versus blue is a creativity killer.”

That said, Englesman found it “interesting” how creatives “embrace data as fuel for moving forward. Validation like this wasn’t available to them before.” And that validation helps them work on more solid ground. “At end of the day, marketing is trying to move the needle,” he said. “Data helps identify why a needle moved.”


Mark Feffer is a writer and editor who focuses on topics related to technology, analytics, technology, and workforce development. His most recent work on technology has been copywriting for the website of services provider INSYS Group (www.insys.com) and stories on the use of IT in recruiting and workforce management for SHRM Online and Dice Insights. Mark is a paid contributor to THINK Marketing.

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