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At least once a week, I receive invitations to webinars with clickbait-worthy headlines extolling the demise of data-driven marketing. I can also list a dozen B2B influencers on a crusade to banish complex marketing reports.

But despite the popularity of the advice, the last thing marketers should do right now is "rely on gut instinct."

Marketing data is #complicated. The explosive growth of marketing tools and the unique way each system collects information has resulted in many confused executives, frustrated analysts, and marketing leaders caught in the middle.

A staggering one-third of CMOs say they don't trust their own data, and you better believe a much higher percentage of CEOs also don't trust marketing data.

But just because marketing data is complicated doesn't mean making sense of it is impossible. Moreover, the marketers who can decipher their systems will miss fewer opportunities to connect sales to interested customers, and they will have a competitive edge in the job market.

Before we can discuss how to marry data-driven decision-making and the art of marketing, let's understand how we got into this mess in the first place.

Where We Started: Arts and Crafts

When I think of marketing, I think of Santa Claus. More specifically, the image people (particularly in the US) have embraced: a chubby, cheery guy with rosy cheeks and a red suit.

But that collective vision of Santa Claus didn't exist until Haddon Sundblom's take on the holiday icon as commissioned by Coca-Cola. By 1964, so many movies, television series, donation stations, and visual formats had recreated Sundblom's vision for St. Nick that people became angry when creators deviated from Sundblom's prototype.

Even though we can't tell how many bottles of soda the illustration sold, it achieved "iconic resonance" and was considered a success.

Traditionally, marketing was nearly impossible to track. The channels advertisers relied on—magazine slicks, newspaper advertisements, billboards, television commercials, radio slots, and direct mail—were a data vacuum. People thought most effective advertising struck an emotional chord with their audiences. If something went "viral" enough to be replicated across every media channel and parroted by people advertisers knew in their community (like Santa Claus), the ad was an "undeniable success" whether it translated into sales or not.

In the past, executives selected agencies because their pitch was compelling. However, agencies retained the contract only if sales drastically spiked or they achieved "iconic resonance." Otherwise, they struggled to provide business leaders with proof that the money spent producing and publishing the ads led to a positive return on investment.

Eventually, business leaders grew frustrated, and Marketing was "affectionately" dubbed the "arts and crafts department."

The Tipping Point: Digital Marketing

Over the past 15-20 years, digital marketing has moved to the forefront of marketing.

Although some companies still strive to hit "iconic resonance" via a commercial slot on the Super Bowl halftime show or a viral social campaign, most of us focus on incremental improvement using digital platforms. We tinker with our websites to improve SEO rankings, experiment with digital ad copy and creative, and pray that our efforts across dozens of channels lead to ever-increasing contact requests.

A lot of great things came out of digital marketing. We learned that collecting data was fairly simple, using a funnel to track progress helps identify sticking points in the buyer journey, and multitouch attribution can estimate how each interaction with a prospect helps us close a deal.

But there will never be a silver bullet marketers can use to say what percentage of revenue they contributed. We can get close, but we will never be able to measure mindshare (word-of-mouth, public opinion, referrals, etc.). And mindshare will always be critical.

I have worked with some brilliant engineers-turned-CEOs, and their experience creating software evolved into a belief that anything is possible, particularly in relation to data collection and analytics. Vendors and thought leaders sold executives hook, line, and sinker on the demand generation waterfall and its linear buyer journey.

But the reality is that B2B sales involve buyer committees of 6-10 people who interact dozens of times apiece with your brand before deciding on your product.

Marketers are tired of being beaten over the head for providing imperfect results. Perfection is impossible when measuring the impact of word-of-mouth referrals and cloaked digital interactions (sometimes called the dark funnel). Now we're witnessing a backlash on social media, and a vocal subset of marketers are threatening to regress to Mad Men-era marketing.

The scary thing is that people are listening.

The Fix: Creative Data-Driven Marketing

The marketing leaders who will be successful in the next 5-10 years are those who know how to retain their creativity while using data to help decide what they should improve, repeat, or drop from their list of campaigns and tactics.

More specifically, marketers should be using multitouch attribution to estimate how much of the bookings and pipeline they are influencing in their organization. That means getting a tool that can look at all touches presale across departments (not just marketing campaigns) to estimate influence. Opportunity-source reporting will still be useful for funnel-conversion metric reporting, but it negates the dozens of touch points necessary to convert a deal.

Marketing leaders should still care about leading indicators, such as Marketing-qualified leads and engagement, but the main goal is to align your core key performance indicators with the rest of the business. That will take investing in the right tools and talent, but in return you will be able to convincingly speak to what is working and what isn't as it correlates to bookings.

Investors, CFOs, and CEOs care about profitability. Historically, they've mistrusted marketers who can't tie their investments to specific results.

Resetting expectations with members of the executive team and getting them to trust multitouch attribution as a directional indicator will be an uphill battle. But you can avoid a lot of the mistrust marketers have fallen prey to by investing in the tools and talent that look beyond just the activity marketing is generating.

Also, do not cave to the temptation to sell multitouch attribution as a precise measurement or a silver bullet. Directional accuracy, not perfection, must be the goal.

* * *

Marketers must learn the nuances of digital data, figure out how to teach the rest of the organization about marketing data's shortcomings, and champion using estimates and close approximations to make educated decisions.

It won't be easy, but speaking truthfully and accurately about marketing data will give future leaders the competitive advantage.

More Resources on the Art and Science of Data-Driven Marketing

B2B Data-Driven Marketing: Author Ruth Stevens on Marketing Smarts [Podcast]

Secrets to Successful Data-Driven Marketing | MarketingProfs Webinar

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image of Camela Thompson

Camela Thompson is the VP of Marketing at CaliberMind, a leading B2B platform for revenue insights. Camela has spent 15+ years in revenue operations at successful tech startups, such as Qumulo, Extrahop, and CDK Global (formerly Cobalt).

LinkedIn: Camela Thompson