Image: Galileo (left) and Aristotle /

Automated analytics can crunch huge amounts of data in a second, providing you with numerous suggestions for your next step. But if you ever want to rise above “what works for most people most of the time”, you must apply context.

If you are anything like me, you probably try to pick up as many tips and tricks as possible to maximise the effect of the work you do in communication. We are all trying to figure out what works – in social media, in media relations, in content marketing etc. And with the introduction of “Big Data”, the Internet is now flooded with more or less helpful articles suggesting to us the best words to use in a headline, the best frequency and time of day to post on social media, the maximum number of words to use in an article, the sort of photos and illustrations we’ll need and tons of other suggestions based on what worked for others – according to the data.

But here is the thing: data isn’t just data. How you look at it and interpret it changes the conclusion you might reach.

Two ways to look at data

The Greek philosopher Aristotle came up with a system of classification that would try to divide everything into the smallest possible subcategory – to boil down to the essence of everything in order to define its being. For instance, you might have:

Animal -> Mammal -> Dog -> Cocker Spaniel

A few thousand years later, another great thinker, Galileo, introduces the concept of context. He argues that context is what makes us able to understand and interpret everything around us. Consider, for a moment, how you feel about “a Cocker Spaniel”. Now consider how you feel about “the Cocker Spaniel you got as a pup on your 10th birthday and named Bella”.

Do you notice a difference? Context changes the perception of the dog completely. In the same way, we need context to help us interpret what the data is actually telling us about our communication.

A study of airline meals and missed flights

Eric Siegel is a predictive analytics expert who was studying some data related to airline passengers who missed flights. Because airlines often must re-book a passenger who missed a flight, every passenger missing a flight costs the airlines money. While looking at the data, Eric Siegel noticed that vegetarians statistically missed fewer flights.

If we were to base our marketing on this data, we might say: “Great, we should put more resources into advertising towards vegetarians – they are an important customer group!”

But if we stop and think for a moment and apply analytical thinking – and context – we can dig deeper and come up with a much better explanation. What is really going on, Eric Siegel explains, is that customers who make a personal choice (eg selecting a vegetarian meal) during their booking process are more committed to not missing their flight.

Armed with this information, airlines could introduce a whole range of new personalised choices for all passengers and thus maximise the number of passengers who show up for their flight.

Don’t get stuck on “The Plateau of Average”

Looking at data from an Aristotelian perspective rather and a Galilean perspective – using absolutes rather than context – can lead us to false conclusions. It also leads to what I like to call “The Plateau of Average”.

The one-size-fits-all advice – on for example, when and how much to post on social media – does not take context into consideration. It is merely a calculation of what works best for most people most of the time. In other words, it is a conclusion based on averages. If the data suggests that you, like everyone else, will get the most engagement by posting three times on Thursdays, you may never discover that your particular audience for some reason are much more responsive and engaged on Sundays and capitalise on that.

The only way to look at context is by isolating various factors in what you do one at a time and observing if changing something make a difference to the result. That way you can gradually figure out what works best for you – and rise above average.

This article is based on parts of a larger presentation about international trends in communications measurement, given at the regional EACD event “Measuring what Matters” on February 27, 2017 in Copenhagen and hosted by the EACD and the local communications association K1.

Jesper Andersen is a strategy advisor and speaker specialising in communications measurement. He works with corporations, organisations, and governing institutions to create insights that help them improve their communication and achieve strategic business objectives. His company, Quantum Public Relations, is based in Copenhagen, Denmark. Follow him on Twitter @startsnakken.