The Gut: The OTHER Biological Data Storage Device

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In an article on the HBR blog titled Marketers Flunk the Big Data Test, the authors write:

“A recent study of nearly 800 marketers at Fortune 1000 companies found the vast majority of marketers still rely too much on intuition — while the few who do use data aggressively for the most part do it badly.”

The article goes on to state that “on average, marketers depend on data for just 11% of all customer-related decisions.”

My take: Nonsense. The gut — i.e., intuition — is getting an undeserved bad rap.


First, let’s deal with the “11%” claim. This is a nonsense number. What exactly is a “customer-related decision”? Question: How many decisions did you make this week? Answer: You can’t possibly come up with a reasonable number, because: 1) decisions come in all shapes and sizes, and 2) you don’t consciously think about the decisions you make on a day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute. 

In truth, I bet the toughest decision you made this week was what to have for lunch. 

So for marketers to say they “depended” on data for just 11% of “all” customer-related decisions begs the question: Who’s tracking what is and isn’t a customer-related decision? The answer, of course, is no one.


Second, let’s go to the statement that “marketers still rely too much on intuition.” 

This begs the question: How much is too much? Is there really a correct balance between intuition and data?

The bigger — and more important — issue here is that the authors (and I would guess, a lot of other people) don’t really understand what intuition is. 

Intuition is data. 

You gut is a data storage device.

While we like to think of our brains as computers that can store and access data, we should think of our guts as a data storage device — but what our gut stores is unstructured data.

Our gut remembers when we tried something that no one thought would work, but did. Our gut understands human nature in a way that can’t be quantified.

It’s ironic that Big Data proponents often explain Big Data in terms of unstructured data, but then dismiss marketers’ use of their intuition.

Intuition isn’t “winging it” or randomness. It’s the sum of our experiences. Our intuition may be wrong — but then, so might be our analysis of the “quantifiable” data (or just “data” in the terminology of the article’s authors).


The authors make an interesting (but unsupportable) assertion:

“In today’s volatile business environment, judgment built from past experience is increasingly unreliable. “

Why is it “increasingly” unreliable? Was it ever reliable? How can they prove their statement?

The implication of their statement — if it’s true — is that marketers need to rely more on data. 

But there’s a problem here: Data just doesn’t appear. Someone has to decide to collect it, store it, analysis it, and use it. How do they decide what to collect, store, analyze, and use? Well, I guess, they could run tests to determine which data elements are most effective in decision making. 

Database marketers certainly do this a certain extent. But if it’s new types of data — like the Big Data proponents talk about — then someone has to make a decision about what to collect in order for it to be tested. Again, I have to ask: How are they going to make their decision?

The answer, of course, is their intuition. Their gut belief about what will work and what won’t. If they’re smart they’ll adjust their gut instincts if they fail. 

But, you see, there it is again: It’s the gut that’s storing the critical data elements to make decisions. 

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