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Data and marketing: never the Twain shall meet?

Opinions and data

What has Mark Twain got to do with data-led marketing?

The following quote is often erroneously attributed to Mark Twain:

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

The irony that it’s probably not his saying wouldn’t be lost on the great man.

Just because Twain didn’t write those words precisely, doesn’t imply that there should be any less weight given to their meaning. Welcome to 2019, where we are awash with data, both good and bad and poor decisions made on both.

At TBD, we’ve recently been working on some significant data-led marketing initiatives. Simply put, using data to inform marketing and business development activities so that they are more efficient. As well as advising clients, we have become our own guinea pig, as it were. More of that below.

The history of data in legal marketing

It’s something of a dirty secret in the legal sector that, until now, much of the marketing that has been done since the market liberalised in 1987 has been based on less than perfect data. The main inputs have been track record (i.e. what worked last year will work this year), what competitors are doing, and a good dose of gut instinct (sometimes called marketing chops).

Let’s take those data points in turn:

Our track record is often based on some collective memories, for example how we ran a client event the year before. Perhaps a ‘lessons learned’ document was written to capture all the tweaks and improvements that are needed the next year (I’ve just written one about the school fireworks event last week for the PTA).

There’s a lot of room for improvement here: inputs could be captured better, deciding what the determining factors of an event’s success (like the weather we mention in this piece), outcomes could almost always have been better recorded (how much work did we win that night). And so on and so forth.

Likewise, the success of the event is often affected by who is recalling it – judgment being in the eye of the beholder.

Our track record is so subjective or politicised that we often can’t see what needs to be improved or tweaked.

Our competitors’ marketing is also often very hard to ascertain. Sure, it’s a good idea to look at others’ materials and ponder what their focus is and their targets are. But, as I have often said to Managing Partners, we can only see the tip of the iceberg from where we’re sat. Beyond the articles published on a firm’s website, or even its guides and brochureware sit a plethora of other activities which any joined-up marketing campaign would deploy. So, guessing motives and actions from our side of the fence is probably not the best use of our time. However, reflecting on this makes us think about how complex our campaigns are and the need to use data to track as much as possible across the full gamut of marketing activities that relate to it.

Gut instinct is not something to lose sight of. A great marketing expert will “know” when something’s going to work even when the data says otherwise or the track record suggests that this new route is not the one to take. In terms of classic adverts, the story behind the Dairy Milk gorilla is now legendary and is based on not much more than naked, out and out, assured marketing chops. Someone took a gamble and it paid off.

Now, I’d suggest that this actually did involve a lot more data in the preparation than is often appreciated: the gut instinct is based on a lot of experience (data point) and a knowledge of the zeitgeist (another data point) and of marketing expertise (more data). It’s just hard to articulate.

Now Cadburys could have focus-grouped their way out of doing the advert. Maybe they almost did. But somewhere along the line, using *all* the data at their fingertips paid off. They committed and the rest is advertising history.

Defining our markets. Marketing as a discipline is first and foremost about defining audiences and markets: literally qualifying who we’re going after and determining if it’s worth doing so financially. The problem in the legal sector is that marketing has often been tactical until now – likely based more on a combination of gut/track record and politics and not properly assessing if an opportunity is actually worth pursuing. This is not pervasive, but nor is defining our markets the norm.

What does this mean for marketing in 2019?

Using a track record – especially based on memory and perceptions alone – will not suffice on its own in 2019. It’s home to too many biases. Equally, old formats without improvements can quickly turn stale. And accepted ways of doing business have changed – especially for digital-first individuals.

Likewise, the speed with which competitors can deploy copycat campaigns is also getting faster. The value of joined-up marketing, and in particular business development-led campaigns mean that the well is often dry by the time the competitors see your work.

Markets can and should be defined so that we can judge if our campaigns worked or didn’t. We need to remove fault and blame when we reflect on our marketing efforts. One lawyer said to me this week “we took a risk and it didn’t work out, but the other nine times we did, it did work out. It’s to be expected.” Amazon even goes as far as to celebrate its failures (“failure is innovation’s inseparable twin”).

On the other side of the coin, what’s equally alarming is the fact that gut instinct is in danger of being ditched altogether in favour of data-driven initiatives. We think that that’s at the peril of your best work and that’s why we advocate data-led marketing initiatives.

Data-led not data-driven

Any campaign should be objectives- or outcomes-driven, not data-driven as such. We’ll write an ‘inputs versus outcomes’ blog post very soon. It’s too important a topic not to.

But using hard or primary data as the sole influence in a marketing campaign would be a mistake. How would it work, for example, if you were creating a market – selling a product that had never been sold before?

Equally, not using the many available data sources to make better marketing decisions will make the not-Twain quote above come true: you’ll be basing your approach on things ‘which just ain’t so.’

Hence why we think that 2020 is going to be the year of data-led marketing in law firms. Campaigns and tactical decisions that are based on a better data set are more likely to produce the right outcomes.

In practice, what kinds of results can a data-led marketing approach produce?

Data is the golden thread that runs through all law firm marketing activities.

Objectives which require us to gain more clients, boost profitability and gain profile all have touchpoints across the buyer’s journey which can be improved or tweaked when we reference the data.

What referrals have some of our key account clients helped win?

What level of investment time do we have for each key account?

Which targets are the next big thing in our sector? Why? Who acts for them currently?

Which attendees at our events instruct us? Which clients did we win after attending an event with them?

Which journalists produce the most positive and meaningful coverage of our firm?

Which pages on our websites produce the most leads? Which searches on Google lead to new business? Which of our social content is the most liked and shared?

The list goes on (and on and on).

What can we do about this?

What is safe to say is that if you’re not currently looking at your data, there are probably loads of lessons to learn that would make an immediate and significant impact. Something that we learned about our own business recently was that tweeting in the different quarters of the hour produced hugely different levels of engagement. So, we tweaked our issue times and, guess what, it radically improved our engagement levels. A small but important win for our business.

Nowadays, data is everywhere and it’s easy to act on. It’s just that to be great at data-led marketing, first you need to know what is and what ain’t so. Otherwise, it’ll turn out to be just “lies, damned lies and statistics”, a quote that Twain himself erroneously attributed to Disraeli.