Marketers and agencies are increasingly excited about the potential of real-time data. However, while the availability of real-time data has many benefits, there are potential pitfalls, too. An informative parallel is the outbreak of World War I, the centenary of which is being commemorated this year.
This event might seem too distant to enlighten us, but there are many informative similarities. Like now, the Summer of 1914 was a time of rapid technological change. The telegraph had transformed communications - messages that had once taken days to convey could now be transmitted instantaneously.
Some historians, most notably Stephen Kern in “Culture of Time and Space”, have suggested that this new technology contributed to the war. Diplomats who had been trained in an era of slowly-exchanged letters were suddenly thrust into making snap decisions. The result - a disastrous escalation of tensions after the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand.They simply didn't have the luxury of time to think of solutions that would appease both parties.
This culminated in Austria-Hungary issuing a list of demands to Serbia on the 23rd of July giving them a mere 48 hours to respond. When Serbia’s response to the tight deadline was unsatisfactory in Austrian eyes, war was declared and the calamity of WWI began to unfold.
This historic example shows that our adoption of ground-breaking technology sometime outpaces our ability to adjust to its potential. Skip forward one hundred years and we have a similar disjuncture between knowledge and technology. Like the WWI diplomats, we feel a pressure to respond quickly to the stream of live data that is now so easily accessible. Sometimes speed is achieved at the expense of accurate insight.
As the Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman has noted, our snap decisions are often prone to biases. Without taking the time to mitigate against these biases, the calibre of our decisions can decline. For example, when we react quickly we see patterns that aren't there. We misinterpret random fluctuations as meaningful trends. We tend to ignore the data that contradicts our existing hypotheses, a state of affairs sometimes known as the confirmation bias. We are over-confident in our ability to predict the future. Without thought we analyse metrics that might not be appropriate for the problem.
So, how can we get the most out of real-time data? Ignoring the deluge of data around us is not an option. Real-time data brings untold opportunities and new sources of competitive advantage. The best strategy is to introduce tactics which counter-balance biases. The first approach is to boost awareness of biases. Kahneman has stated that biases are more likely to be defeated when their discussion is commonplace. Ideally, discussion needs to be complemented with structural changes too. For example, McKinsey recommend countering the confirmation bias by ensuring that, when executives present recommendations, they supply the raw data they have used. This ensures that it’s analysed from a neutral perspective by people who may not be blinded by existing hypotheses.
The agencies and brands who make the most of real-time data will be those who temper their enthusiasm with a healthy dose of realism.