#Whystudyhistory Invades the World of Marketing

market-analystsDo you want to be an effective marketing analyst?

Then study history.

If you are a longtime reader of The Way of Improvement Leads Home you know about Cali Pitchel.  She has written a lot for the blog and has been featured in at least three different So What CAN You Do With a History Major? posts.

Cali is the Director of Marketing at Analytics Pros, a digital analytics consultancy in Seattle, WA. She studied history as an undergraduate at Messiah College, received her M.A. in American Studies at Penn State, and spent two years working on a Ph.D in American history at Arizona State before dropping out to “channel her inner Peggy Olson.”

Cali does a lot of writing about how her study of history has made her a better marketing analyst.  In her most recent piece, which appears at LiftOff blog, she urges her fellow marketers to “approach your data like a historian.”  Her study of history has taught her important lessons about humility, empathy, and  interpretation that she uses every day in her current work.

Here is a taste:

I’m a trained historian. I spent the better part of the past 10 years studying the past, collecting some graduate degrees, and thinking I wanted to be a history professor. After two years of coursework in a PhD program, I took a one-semester leave for a much-needed mental break. Almost four years after what was supposed to be a brief respite, I’m the Director of Marketing at a digital analytics consultancy.

This might not seem like a natural career move. What does the humanities have to do with web and mobile app analytics? At first the transition felt a bit awkward. I had never taken a business class, let alone looked at a Google Analytics dashboard. But what I’ve learned in the past 12 months is that historians and growth marketers have a lot to learn from one another.

Here are three things I think historians can teach marketers who make data-driven decisions:

1. Be humble.

A historian requires a posture of curiosity, an open mindset, and also a strong sense of humility. You have to arrive at the text without all the answers. The sources can—and almost always will—challenge your assumptions.

Is this not true for data? All too often we see data as a capital T truth—hard numbers, fact, science. But even data is meaningless without interpretation, and because so much depends on that interpretation, data analysis demands the same integrity required of an historian. If you think you know all the answers when you approach the data, it’s likely you’ll confirm your bias. (This is a very human thing to do, by the way.)

When asked about truth, data, and analysis, Historian John Fea suggested that, “Data means Why Study History Covernothing until it becomes part of the story that the analyst wants to tell. This does not mean that the facts are not important. If the story that the analyst tells is not based on evidence, it will be a bad story and irresponsible analysis.”

A growth marketer must first acknowledge his or her position and then meet the data appropriately—fully aware of the bias that is just part of being human. It’s trite, but true: knowledge is power. And just knowing your subjectivity can (and should) come to bear on the interpretation of data.

It’s easy to choose pride over humility, especially as a marketer prized for your acumen and industry expertise. But pride and relying on your instinct can have negative implications for your users’ experience. One way to combat this and ensure you’re creating a good (and high-converting) online experience, is to create a culture of testing. Testing not only allows you to optimize a user’s experience, it can substantiate and challenge your assumptions. When you trust the data—and not just your gut—you can pivot and respond to the needs of your audience, creating a cost savings or generating more revenue. In other words, humility is good business.

2. Empathy is everything.

One of the greatest lessons I learned as a historian was the importance of empathy. The Dictionary defines empathy as “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” Studying the past was essentially a proving ground for how to relate to everyone around me, not just historical actors.

One of the difficult tasks of the historian, according to Fea, is to get rid of his or her “contemporary understanding of the world and [try] to see the world from another perspective—the perspective of someone living in what many historians refer to as the ‘foreign country’ of the past. Historians empathize with dead people and in the process we learn how to empathize in our contemporary lives as well.”

Empathy must also inform the way in which we interpret data. In its simplest form, the goal of empathy is understanding. And understanding a client—their challenges, their objectives, their business—is essential to any engagement.

Read her entire post here.

It is very rewarding to see the themes of Why Study History? find their way into the business world.  My goal is to make Why Study History? required reading in all college and university marketing classes!  🙂

Thanks, Cali.

One thought on “#Whystudyhistory Invades the World of Marketing

  1. Re empathy: Our narratives are only as good as our underlying data, of course, and as history becomes more about “the little people,” the more it becomes sociology. But who and what are the subjects of our study?

    Another strategy for sowing the seeds of suspicion presents students with a set of research findings that are opposite of what was actually observed. I have frequently used Paul Lazarsfeld’s 1949 study of American soldiers for this purpose. I tell students that Lazarsfeld found better-educated soldiers to be more susceptible to psychological distress than their less-educated counterparts, and that soldiers from the South were better adapted to tropical climates than those from the North. I then ask students to develop in writing explanations for why the observations turned out as they did, and they do so with little trouble.

    “Book smarts may help one succeed at desk jobs,” some students write in response, “but they don’t protect against the terrors of war. Only lessons in hard knocks do that.”

    “And, of course, the South is hotter than the North,” others write, “so it only makes sense that southern soldiers would fare better than northerners in hot and humid temperatures.”

    When I reveal to students that the actual results are just the opposite of what I described, and that the seamless explanations they manufactured really explain nothing at all, they are stunned at their ability to make sense of things independent of their rootedness in facts. I once had a student in a room full of classmates gasp loudly when I presented what Lazarsfeld observed. She voiced vocally what others routinely show in their countenances of surprise and disbelief.

    The message conveyed by both techniques is clear: Doubt should reign over our social intuitions.



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