Startup brands need to kill mindless data worship

And they may have no choice, writes Kate Knowles

The end of cookie-based creepery should be a moment for celebration

It’s an opportunity to unshackle ourselves from the false science of attribution, and reframe growth as resonating with more people, not paying for clicks. For newer brands that see attributable performance data as a lifeline, this may feel like an earth-shaking change. But marketers at small businesses will need to look beyond the cookie, to survive.

The grand unified theory of business growth, falls down

As a reformed performance marketer, I know too well the spiralling honey trap of attributable channel data. In a rich world of people’s complex decisions, digital performance feels like an oasis of calm. A single viewpoint on what is working to get revenue — down to the exact ad and copy and channel. Ta da!

It’s no wonder then, that young brands invariably favour performance. In the seven years I’ve been working with startups, no matter the sector (be it retail, tech, or virtual assistants for over 60s), they share a laser focus on showing where the money comes from. Most invest 100% of their budget in performance, and measure marketing’s success on whatever shows sales. But this comes at the expense of focusing on the people seeing the ad and, therefore, long term growth.

Marketing’s dirty secret: performance data doesn’t actually tell you what’s working

The truth is that digital attribution ranges from misleading to abjectly untrue. Being data-driven is all well and good, but if the data is garbage, you’ll be led wildly off the mark. Les Binet put it perfectly when he said: ‘It looks very scientific, it looks very precise, and it’s extremely unreliable.

Samuel Scott unpicks the problem with digital attribution very neatly:

  • It falsely assumes people make decisions immediately and linearly
  • It falsely relies on giving full credit to a single channel, at a single moment
  • It falsely looks at what got the person to make a purchase, but not what drove them to want it in the first place

We’re now finally seeing the slow and drawn-out death of attribution. 43% of people use adblockers that stop analytics tools running, and browsers like Safari, Firefox and Brave have been restricting cookies for years. Meanwhile, Chrome is being forced by privacy pressure to follow suit by the end of 2024, that alone covers 60% of the browser market. With no alternative in sight, this is just the shove we will all need to look at growth more holistically and ethically.

With the cookie stabilisers off, there’s space to learn from big brands

Just staring at the consumer is called stalking and shouting the same thing over and over is called being unpleasant. A bit of charm, a story a little bit of wit is what is required to succeed.

Marketing effectiveness chatter is dominated by goliaths, making growing companies feel left out of the conversation. Small budgets and limited run time makes the pressure to survive stronger, but new players have the advantage of being nimble and scrappy. Without the blinkers of performance marketing dependence, there’s space for newbies to scoop up customers — playing the old school advertising game.

1. Bring a brand mindset

Don’t go ‘performance blind’, if your ads are forgettable, or low quality, or click-baity, don’t let digital metrics force you to keep that approach. Trust your gut and invest in distinctive, quality creative. It’s the best thing for long-term growth. Performance data is a small slice of reality — we need to be thinking about the people seeing the ads, and what they want and need.

2. Bring other data sets in

If your morning routine is looking at your analytics dashboards, look at other data sets with equal weight. Digital performance data may have a role to play in making decisions, but only alongside other data like customer interviews, social listening and surveys. Together, these data should paint a picture of what’s working and resonating. Most importantly, measure your overall sales and revenue.

3. Bring other channels to the table

Growth isn’t ‘let’s spend on digital ads and track how many people purchase.’ A good growth strategy will build sustainable growth, and bring in organic sales over the long term. You don’t want to be so reliant on short-termism that if you turn off ads, sales stop. Monzo’s biggest growth channel came through referrals. Airbnb’s biggest growth channel is PR. Find what works for you. It’ll almost certainly be unexpected.

The death of cookie data should finally unshackle us from worshipping data, which is inaccurate and unethical. Without being bound to ‘trackable ROI’ we can start focusing on what matters: the people behind the purchases. Start with them and enjoy the ride: you’ll find success in unexpected places.

Featured image: Luis Quintero / Pexels

Kate Knowles, Freelance Strategist

Kate Knowles is a freelance strategist and former senior strategist at Weirdo. She has over six years experience working in strategy, with extensive experience planning campaigns for FTSE100 brands and disruptive startups alike. Passionate about inclusion and allyship, she participates in volunteering and mentorship.

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