Original image by JD Hancock Original image by JD Hancock

Last summer, Bill Gates posted a story about his favorite business book, Business Adventures by John Brooks. He offered up a sample chapter on Xerox, and I really enjoyed that chapter, so I've had Business Adventures on my mental list of books to read.

One story stuck out to me as a marketer, and that's the story of the creation of the Edsel at Ford.

Ford felt they needed to address a weakness they saw in their customer base. The car line that became the Edsel started life as the E Car in the 'Special Products Division' and was intended to fill this market gap. Ford wanted to sell the E Car to young professionals, so they created a 'personality survey' and gave it to 800 in Peoria, IL and San Bernardino, CA who had just purchased new cars. The survey included demographic questions and sought to define how the average car buyer saw each brand of car.

And it got weird.

One of the questions was about cocktail making ability, so that they were able to "infer that these respondents are aware of the fact that they are in the learning process" of their mixology training. The survey confirmed the suspicion that most Ford buyers were upgrading to cars made by other companies. It also told them that Chrevrolet's were 'clergy cars' and that Buicks were for the wives of lawyers.

Now that the problem was firmly established, Ford needed a name for the new line of cars they were creating. Edsel was an early favorite for the name, but was rejected by the Ford family because they felt Edsel Ford, the late son of Henry Ford, wouldn't want his name used this way. With Edsel off the table, the Special Products Division got to work looking for a name.

They hired researchers, gave them a list of 2,000 names, and sent them out to ask people their impressions of each one. Their questions included everything from general impressions of names, to free associations for each one, and to name the opposite of the name they'd just been given.

And the results it provided were inconclusive. So they gave their marketing company the job of coming up with a name.

And the marketing firm came up with a list of 6,000 names, which they printed out and handed out in their presentation. Can you imagine being an executive at Ford, sitting down in this meeting and being given 6,000 names and told, "Your name's in there...somewhere."

They displayed more patience than I would've been able to muster, because they asked the agency to come back with a final list of 10 names. When they came back their names included Corsair, Ranger, and Pacer. When the Special Products Division presented these names to their top executives, they were all dismissed. Someone asked if they could ask for permission to use Edsel again. This time the Ford family agreed and the Special Products Division finally had their name.

The Edsel line of cars wasn't doomed by their name, but the entire naming process is a great example of how data by itself doesn't provide much value.

Collecting every scrap of data they could imagine didn't help anyone at Ford make a better decision about what to call their new line of cars.

If you want to make data powerful, it has to be coupled with insight.

We live in a time where's it seems really easy to collect data and make decisions based on what you find there. The reality is getting the right data is still a challenge.

One of the tools I use all the time is Google Analytics. It's full of data to slice, dice, and analyze. And it's a complete mess for the average user. It gives you a taste of the data you need, and just when you feel like the info you need is within reach it disappears like a mirage. Mess up a filter, or realize you've had a configuration problem for a month? Too bad, there's no going back and finding it.

So then you add other tools to fill in the gaps. But then you realize there's still data you think you need, so you keep heaping on new layers of data.

I can imagine it'd be easy to read this and ask yourself, "Is this clown saying data is worthless?"

No, data is crucial!

But my father-in-law shared his experience with data in decision making like this. When it comes time to make any decision, you can know 80% of whatever it is you need to know to make a good decision. You can find out the other 20%, but the effort and the time to figure out the rest only puts you behind your competition. The key is knowing when you've got the 80% you need and then making your best decision based on what you know.

If you're selling subscription software you have to know how many people are visiting your site, where they're coming from, how many of those visitors are converting to try out your product, and how long they give you money.There is other data important for other roles, but this is the key stuff you need for marketing. Grabbing this info, and combining it for cross reference, will give you everything you need to know to make smart marketing decisions.

No matter what business, or role, you find yourself in, the next time you're working on a project and you're elbows deep in data, stop and make sure you aren't digging for the 20% that will never pay off. Living in the age of 'big data' it's easy to forget all the data in the world only leaves you paralyzed if you can't couple it with the right insight.