October 21, 2013

A Very Intricate Nonsense

In journalism there is a phenomenon called "burying the lead." It happens when an incompetent reporter doesn't understand the essential point of a story, and buries it beneath secondary points.

In the advertising business, we also bury the lead. But mostly, we do it intentionally.
"Our click rate was .042% which is about 22% above the category norm of .035%. Our re-targeting really helped with a .7% rate. By using behavioral scoring we achieved... and our optimization matrix...this lead to an uplift rate of... and a year-over-year ROI increase of almost 33%."
I have been at a few too many of these "bury the lead" meetings.

The meeting will continue on to discuss how the re-targeting was implemented and how we optimized and what behavioral elements were included in our plan and how we can continue to increase our year-over-year ROI, and will never get around to the real story.

The real story is this: For every 10,000 ads that were delivered we got 4 clicks. And we don't know how many of those clicks were fraudulent and how many were accidental.

The era of "big data" is quickly becoming the era of "big bullshit" -- bullshit on a grander scale than ever before. We've always had ability to bullshit with words. Now we have the ability to bullshit with math. We've always had bullshit artists. Now we have bullshit scientists.

For a wonderful analysis of how we are raising irrelevancy and obfuscation to new heights, I highly recommend this post by Doc Searls. Doc is a brilliant guy who was one of the writers of The Cluetrain Manifesto, one of the foundational documents of the digital era. I have, at times, poked fun at it. But I have great regard for Doc and his intellect. Here's a snippet from his post:
When I was doing research for The Intention Economy, the most important input I got came from Doug Rauch, the retired president of Trader Joe's. One big reason for Trader Joe's success, he told me, is...that it minimizes marketing bullshit. It has no loyalty program, no coupons, no discounts and none of the expenses any of those involve, including the cost of running a big data mill. ...By avoiding this kind of thing, Trader Joe's spares itself the cognitive overhead required to rationalize complicating the living shit out of everything, which is what marketing tends to do—and does now, more than ever, with Big Data.
Here's a pretty good rule of thumb for understanding what's really going on at the next online advertising presentation you attend: The deeper the dive, the more calculatedly they're burying the lead.

Thanks to George for pointing me to Doc's post


Hayes said...

"Duking the stats" - The Wire.

dmarti said...

Good points. Because large agencies and tech companies are finding it so easy to bullshit the clients with math, the industry is systematically throwing away what's valuable about advertising in the first place.


George Tannenbaum said...

It's actually called burying the "lede." To distinguish lede from lead, as the in typographic space bar.

Jason Fox said...

Yet by posting even this negative comment, you've inflated Bob's Engagement Quotient by a factor of 25%.

Ian said...

There are bullshitters, but quoting stats in isolation of the business context doesn't contribute to proving them as bullshit. As this article is about getting to the real story, I thought you would have known that.
As an example from my own career, I once ran a PPC campaign whose desired outcome demanded we lower the Click Through Rate.
We were getting a lot of non-converting traffic and it was costing our client money. So we wanted to disqualify this traffic, very cleanly.
We did this, and the CTR fell. And it probably looked unimpressive. But if you consider that the 'real story' then you're missing the point: sales went up, cost-per-conversion came down.
I get that you're an ideologue and I appreciate your point of view, but quoting statistics out of context and masquerading them as 'the real story' is a little hypocritical, no?

andy said...

How do we know that gerald Hensel is real and not just a Bot posing as a troll?

Craig McGill said...

George, maybe in the US, but in the UK - as far as I saw in 20 years of journalism - it was always "lead"

tim said...

Marketing pros have finally figured out what mathematics grad students have known for generations: numbers are like clay – you can make them mean anything you want.

Matt Sharper said...

ian are you trolling?

Ian said...

Nope. The aim of the campaign wasn't CTR. It was ROI. Do you think they are always the same?
If click rate *was* the objective then yeah, its all bullshit and you failed. But the article weighs in on CTR like its the most important metric and the objective of all online marketers... when this is not always the case.

AgencyOfZero said...

This is not a debate about advertising, but a debate about epistemology, with fallacies on both sides. argumentum ad cherry-picking, nitpicking & ranting. The real story here (burying the lead) is the lengths old ad people go to talk themselves into not simply laying down and dying; and just as annoying is the other side, young talentless busybodies basking in the data-driven opportunities to mediocre goody-goodies to actually earn the right to pretend to be ad people long enough to get through the next two decades. Hope I'm around to watch them squirm when the new thing comes. See if they can be all rational and change on a dime. Good luck all