Stay attuned to the tyranny of opinion

Someone doesn’t like it when you generalize from a single data point!

“The best check of someone’s intelligence is to see whether he generalizes from a single data point.”

As the AMA recently pointed out, marketing is fraught with challenges, from uncovering growth to dealing with digital transformation. But reading the article, I was struck by the extent to which subtle human biases underpin many of the problems they highlighted. Bias is a huge problem in many fields, including marketing. As professional marketers, we need to stay aware of how often subtle cognitive tendencies underlie so much that goes wrong with marketing.

Today, I’m talking about a human bias we call opinion. Basically, I’m talking about the logical fallacy of relying upon an opinion to support decision-making, especially in marketing. I’m talking about making a decision based on one experience, or one idea, or one person’s view.

I see this fallacy all the time — and in marketing, it needs to be rooted out.

As a content marketing consultant, I see it in content review cycles.  All too often, marketers radically rewrite marketing pieces thanks to a single critical remark. Maybe that person is a salesperson, or a client, or a marketing director, or a spouse — but the source doesn’t really matter. The outsider’s opinion causes unnecessary churn — and often ends up diluting or blunting the content. I’ve even seen projects cancelled because someone’s opinion got in the way.

As a marketing manager, I saw opinion driving campaign creation — almost always with poor results. Often a sales VP or an engineering VP comes over to marketing and says, “Oh, we HAVE to run a campaign about purple widgets, because if we don’t we’re missing a huge opportunity.” Often, when you dig into this opinion, it stems from a single experience. A salesperson talked to a customer who wanted purple widgets, and suddenly the salesperson concludes that all people want purple widgets. That’s a logical fallacy – and so common, it could make you head to the bar a little early.

Come to think of it, as a product manager, I’ve seen products launched from a single opinion. Inevitably, they were products that were launched and then went nowhere, finally exploding on the launch pad, because one person’s opinion became a market’s useless, irrelevant product. R&D spend, sales focus, marketing dollars — all wasted because one person’s opinion drove a company toward a dead end.

What opinionated people don’t understand is that their opinions are just single data points. The problem with data points is that they typically distribute on a bell curve, and with one data point, you have no idea where the opinion is on the curve. It might be the most pessimistic view, or the optimistic view. It might be the view held be geniuses, or by chuckleheads. It might be a million dollar idea, or an idea that’s worth a buck oh five. With just one data point, there’s no way to tell.

To make matter worse, opinion is an imaginary guess, often not based on reality at all. It’s based on hunch, instinct, habit, rhythm. It can be skewed by a poor night’s sleep, by a desire to win political points, or out of an overabundance of caution.

Of course, opinionated people have a bias toward opinion. They argue that their opinions aren’t single data points, but ARE a distillation of experiences.

That begs the question: what experiences?

If your marketing VP, with twenty years of marketing experience, has an opinion, fair enough, perhaps you should listen. But all too often, marketing gets opinions from high-ranking managers in Sales, or Engineering, or Operations. Their opinion doesn’t derive from marketing experience – so it ought to be looked at, skeptically.

In fact, it probably shouldn’t be considered at all.

For that matter, I’m not so sure that our opinions deserve consideration either. After all, our ideas are just single data points too.  We need a better way to introduce rigor into our decision-making.

Here’s an idea.

If we were scientists, we’d start with opinions (aka hypotheses), but go beyond them by applying the scientific method, which, if you look at it, is an approach built to try and avoid bias and opinion. In the scientific method, a scientist floats a hypothesis. But then the scientist takes another step. She tests the hypothesis.

With what? Data.

Data trumps opinion. That’s why the direct response marketers have the right idea, and the data analytics vendors are becoming so critical to good marketing. If you test your market, if you poll the sales force, if you organize sessions with your customers and suppliers, if you use marketing automation to monitor campaigns, you can begin to see the truth. Instead of relying on a single data point, you have hundreds of data points that can support your search for the most valuable marketing option.

That sounds good. But in reality, is data the fundamental underpinning for most organizations? Does data trump opinion?

Unfortunately, I don’t think it does, even in organizations that spend money and time on data analytics. Let’s face facts. In most marketing organizations, relationships trump data. If you’re an up-and-coming marketing manager, you don’t tell your marketing director to buzz off — even if his opinion is a load of codswallop. You don’t tell your closest channel partner that he’s all wrong about your campaign. You don’t tell your spouse that she’s a programmer, not a marketer, and doesn’t know anything about headline creation. You often default to the received opinion on your team or in your org – because that’s what feels comfortable, what protects your reputation for being agreeable — and possibly what helps you get a bigger bonus.

I get it. When I was a marketing manager, that’s what I did. But looking at it as a consultant across dozens of organizations, it’s a real problem that needs to be addressed. Again and again, I’ve seen a senior marketer rework a data driven campaign for no good reason, based on someone’s hunch, and the resulting effort was a flop.

We all know bad marketing wastes time, and money, and impedes results – all of which go to diminishing the value of marketing in organizations of all sizes. Come to think of it, I’d go so far as to say that building marketing plans based on opinions — or allowing opinions to derail data driven marketing — is a form of professional malpractice. Again and again, I’ve seen opinion driven activities result in poor results.

So why keep creating marketing activities that are based on a single data point?

If you’re having trouble with this, here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • How do you get past the single data point?
  • Should you let a single opinion change your marketing?
  • How can you most effectively leverage data?
  • Is there a way to maintain, and even enhance relationships, without casting the data aside?
  • And most fundamentally, how can you bridge the gap between opinion and reality?

Okay, I’m out of ideas. Maybe I’m making a mountain from a molehill. Do you see this as a real problem? If you do, I would love your comments — and your suggestions, since I’d be glad to help my clients drive better marketing by avoiding the tyranny of bad opinion.


Brian E Whitaker is a content strategist and founder of Zettabyte Content, LLC, a content marketing consultancy for tech companies, based in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at