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Qubit CEO: The race to improve data literacy in marketing

The marketing world still doesn't know enough about data, which is affecting its ability to keep up with the rest of the tech industry; a new campaign aims to change that.

We’re sitting on a gold mine in terms of how close we can get to our customers. A wealth of data is ours to exploit. The vastly uncomfortable truth is that data literacy in marketing is still low. A new campaign aims to change that.

There’s a worrying gap between the amount of data that businesses have in their grasp and the skills that marketing departments possess in order to make it profitable or even useful.

That gap needs to be closed according to Graham Cooke, co-founder and CEO of pioneering customer-experience technology Qubit.

Cooke is hell-bent on democratizing data and making it valuable across the business. If you haven’t yet heard of Cooke’s TruthAboutData (TAD) campaign, the likelihood is that you soon will. TAD is a global, industry education campaign to drive up data literacy in marketing.

TAD is a noisy, educational B2B campaign with a ‘B2C feel’ that is upskilling marketers and their teams with the tools to better understand and unleash the “utterly transformational power” of Big Data.

The campaign’s Data Heroes that are on hand to share their best practice and improve data literacy in marketing are selected for their demonstrated ability to interpret data and apply its insights to light sparks and achieve goals throughout their businesses and organizations.

“Who’s my data hero?” Cooke ponders for only seconds before his eyes light up.

“A gentleman called Hans Rosling. He’s a Swedish medical doctor and academic but he’s also an amazing statistician and co-founder and chairman of the Gapminder Foundation, which developed the Trendalyzer software system.”

Rosling created Gapminder when the government started releasing all sorts of data to the public: health information; life expectancy; the GDP, stuff like that. Rosling visualized this data enabling normal people to see patterns in how entire economies were changing over time – as wealth increased, as family sizes shrunk, as life expectancy increased. Now of course we’re used to being able to access data showing us entire economic plots of countries, even predictive data. That’s because Rosling took it and showed us how to combine it, visualize it and make it predictive. Which is how Cooke believes data literacy in marketing can be resolved.

“That’s what we are doing with TruthAboutData.” “

We want to educate the market, give marketers access and open their eyes to what’s possible with a fuller understanding of data.”

Data, and the technology that enables that data to turn into positive action, is Cooke’s passion.

To date, Qubit is more than 220 people and tracking triple digit growth. Behind Qubit’s growth lies, among other things, Cooke’s gift for embracing the latest technological breakthroughs, taking advantage of the cloud and advances in big data processing power.

Now though, says Cooke, it’s time to change the conversation. From one that’s all about technology and data, to one that includes people, processes and data literacy in marketing.

“While businesses are generating around 200 times more data than they were 30 years ago, we’re not really looking at a great deal more data than we were back then. We’re using the same metrics. What that means is we could be going far deeper, becoming far more predictive and efficient. We can ask bigger questions. It’s a disparity but it’s also an opportunity if we have the required data literacy in marketing skills.”

That may explain the reason behind the campaign but why Cooke and why now?

“Good question. At Qubit, we’re 220 people, the most brilliant minds I’ve ever worked with. We’re always on this maniacal quest for getting the right answer. A couple of years ago the engineering research team was examining the results you get from different A/B tests. But you need a few robust elements of science to ensure you’re seeing real results. It dawned on us through investigations that much of the industry didn’t understand notions such as statistical significance or how many people should be in a test. Many didn’t understand what a well-powered test was, or what different models like Bayesian and Frequentist mean.”

“And you know what? ‘Experts’ weren’t helping.Parts of the vendor industry were sometimes taking advantage of this lack of data literacy in marketing, showing things that were probably false positives while marketers walked away thinking they’d done a great job. Actually the triumphs in their careers were sometimes statistical flukes.”

“That might have been fine for past eras but in these modern times when data is increasingly driving business, flukes like that will create distrust in, and contempt for, marketers. The industry is changing; it’s adopting much more robust models. If data literacy in marketing doesn’t keep up it’s heading for a massive set back. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

Cooke, animated now, is recalling how he has had to explain this to clients.

“It can make for a difficult conversation. Our customers would say: ‘all the stuff we do with your technology is only giving us a 4% uplift while all the things I was doing with this other technology were giving me a 30% uplift’. We would say: ‘look, there’s no way you’re ever getting a 30% uplift. Your business generates $100 million a year online. Were you really generating an additional $30 million a year from this colour change?’”

Despite the tough conversations, Qubit has forged itself a reputation for integrity and applying rigorous data science to the tasks of optimization and personalization for its clients whilst raising the issue of data literacy in marketing.

In January 2014, a Qubit research engineer wrote a white paper comparing all the technologies in the industry on how they measure uplift. The paper, ‘Most Winning A/B Test Results Are Illusory‘, was quietly posted on Hacker News and was quickly downloaded around 30,000 times.

“It was the proverbial can of worms,” says Cooke. “Our data scientist behind it had just wanted to talk openly about what we were seeing all the time – we didn’t realise there was such readiness for the conversation on data literacy in marketing – that paper got everybody blogging.”

“People actually care about this stuff; about getting data right.”

From that point on, Cooke says, Qubit decided that it was going to publicly stand up for doing things the right way.

“Externally, we wanted to find a way of educating the industry without it being ‘Qubit’ doing it so that others could feel no conflict in joining us. Internally, we were determined to improve data literacy in marketing in 2one way or another to empower marketers with the new skills they need.”

During those early days there was talk within Qubit’s ranks of presenting itself as an alternative to snake oil.

“The concept of snake oil is interesting,” Cooke says. “The medicine we know today is very much evidence based. You have long-running trials where they take two groups and the testing is rigorous because when you’re testing whether a drug is going to cure cancer or solve a major medical issue like cholesterol, you want to make damn sure that the drug isn’t going to make people worse. As proper medical testing has increased, so has our ability to save lives. Prior to this methodology, you had snake oil salesmen selling potions: ‘you may not know anything about it, but it will save you…make you healthier, younger…’ – it worked because it appealed to a human emotion. We see the same thing happening when reviewing data literacy in marketing. There’s been snake oil in digital marketing about ‘magical stuff’ that’s never going to work. The reality is, snake oil never lasts, because people eventually want the truth.”

The TAD campaign is currently a website at the heart of a growing community that is using its e-learning modules and learning from its Data Heroes.

In the months to come it will be on platforms at a range of live events as the TAD industry partners find new ways to share data best practice. The question is, how far can TAD go?

Cooke is quick to answer.

“What we’ve been through in the past 20 years is the digital revolution. We’ve taken analogue businesses and made them digital. Everybody understands digital marketing. Now we need to go to the next step. We need to go deeper and understand data. We want to inspire everybody to understand data because that’s how we get closer to our customers; we need to improve data literacy in marketing. That’s how we make better decisions. There are CMOs out there that have had a wonderful career through being a superb marketer with an eye for a great ad campaign and a good grasp of the business strategy. They have been successful because they are creative and they’re inspiring leaders. Now though, it is their responsibility to lead the effort to increase data literacy in marketing.”

“We all talk about making data-driven decisions in our jobs now but the reality is that not many people really understand how to use data. In fact many are scared of data. As data becomes increasingly more important in making good decisions, we believe there’s a need now to admit that most of the industry actually doesn’t know everything it should about this. For those prepared to admit that, well, here’s a great chance to learn.”

The target audience for the campaign is officially marketing. But the beneficiaries of TAD span the hierarchies and departments, says Cooke.

“It’s a campaign for data literacy in marketing. If you’re a practitioner working with digital, you need to understand data. If you’re a CMO you need to understand the high-level concepts of data like what statistical significance means. Ultimately we’re seeing a new breed of marketer. They request raw data from the system because they can do their own statistical analysis.”

“Five years ago that person would’ve settled for what the interface told them. We now see people who actually interrogate data themselves. They go deeper. We’re sitting on a gold mine in terms of how to understand the world better, how to understand the customer better, how to improve things for people and how to make our lives easier. We just have to start asking the right questions. That’s what TAD is about. We’re trying to improve data literacy in marketing to give businesses the skills to make their customers lives better.”