Thought Catalysts: Avinash Kaushik on Debunking Data Myths

June 3, 2016 Avinash Kaushik, The Art Of

There are leaders and then there are followers. Generally the idea is to be the former. 

But perhaps it's worth a shot to look at this phrase the other way around. Maybe to be a leader, it's worth being a follower. 

The people who lead the way with awesome ideas and unique talents did so by acquiring knowledge and applying it in new and interesting ways. We all need to learn stuff to lead stuff. And those who do it best inspire others to act. 

They are Thought Catalysts. Here they are as told by the keynoters giving us lightbulb moments from The Art Of


Nothing worth doing is without a collection of awesome myths. The original intent is lovely. “Steer folks towards the right thing faster.” “Reduce the time to market.” “Here’s something that works, come follow me!”

The problem with myths is that they impede critical thinking. All of us want shortcuts, all of us have busy lives, we jump into tactics without understand what the higher-order bits are or understanding the key underlying facts that made something a success for someone else.

I adore digital, and its transformative power on human lives. My practice sits at the intersection of marketing and analytics, and hence here are three myths to encourage more critical thinking at your company and encouraging your peers to dig for the underlying facts.

1. Programmatic platforms are a panacea.

If you are a warm-bodied mammal, of any species, you’ve heard of the glorious glory of programmatic platforms. World hunger is no match for what this baby can do!

The promise is that a programmatic platform allows for your display ads to be delivered via real-time bids, data-powered, via ad-exchanges to automagically deliver audiences you need to sell the wonderful things you sell. And, you don’t even have to think! Everything happens in 0.0002 seconds!

The elusive goal of right message to the right person delivered at the right time. Finally. TV could not do it. Magazines could not. Radio could not. Digital baby!

I have to admit, the technology piece of all this is super impressive. 

The problem is how we, Marketers, think about this. Of the three critical components, programmatic only solves for two: right person at the right time.

And this is important. But, what about the right message? 

You still have to come up with that. And, most companies don’t make nearly close enough of an investment required in that area.  There are many different types of intent out there, all we do via our programmatic display ads is to annoy audiences with our one-intent pimpy ads. Is it any wonder they turn to ad-blockers?

Your audiences contain people with weak and strong commercial intent, would you show them the same message? They contain people with no commercial intent, what should you tell them? And, they contain your existing customers, what’s your message for them?

If you want to win with programmatic (and you should want to, the world is headed that way quickly), don’t just buy the platform. Obsess about understanding audience intent, and then invest in people, processes and stories to identify the right messages for them. Now, go buy a programmatic platform.

2. The web is dead. Mobile web is dead. Apps are the past, present, future.

I’m sure you’ve heard this myth: 86% of the time spent on mobile devices is spent using mobile apps. The “lame” browser just accounts for 14% of the usage.

The next conclusion is a quick on: Dump the site, let’s just build a mobile app!

Make no mistake, I love my apps just as much as the next person. But, the above conclusion is a career-limiting move. 

Remember what I mentioned the problem was with myths.  Reduce critical thinking, and understanding the underlying facts.

If you break up the 86 points, it will reveal that 40 points are Gaming and Entertainment, 28 points are Social and 18 points fragmented into an area best represented as Other.

So, if you are Canadian Tire, Bank of Montreal, Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan, are you still of the mind that you need to focus obsessively on mobile apps?

Wait, before you answer that, one more set of facts to dig into.

If you look at mobile commerce, 6% happens in apps, 66% happens in browsers and 28% folks use both apps and browsers.


Still want to dump your mobile website?

Even if you take a raw Unique Users view of things, 68% use mobile browsers while only 32% use mobile apps.

I hope the apps-only myth is finally dead in your mind. 

People use mobile apps and mobile sites, and do so with different types of intent. Our role is to identify what intent we are solving for (commercial intent? time-sucking-up intent? just paying bills?), and then identify what platform best solves for that intent.

The best apps solve for one or two goals. We should find what those are and solve for that beautifully and with love in creating those apps. The best websites solve for a multitude of goals because we have a broader canvas to paint with. Create mobile websites that solve for the main goals of your mobile users.

When it comes to apps and browsers, solving for an OR is a terrible idea, we have to solve for the AND. In terms of a priority, for most companies it will be 1. Mobile site and 2. Mobile app. 

3. A data-first strategy is a winning formula.

This has to be bizarre coming from a best-selling author of two books on digital analytics and the world’s most popular blog on digital analytics ( 

I'm a passionate believer in a data-driven product development, marketing, employee hiring, stocking the pantry at your office, and so much more. I. Love. Data!

Yet, I believe that if your company has a "data-first" strategy you are likely doomed. 

A data-first strategy is defined as data before everything else.

It is the quest to implement systems (usually massive) to collect data of all shapes and manner before all else. It is an investment in numerous report writers or data (puking) automation or hiring a small army in India or Philippines to do that, before investing in a single smart Analyst. It is being hyper-conservative when it comes to creativity and experimentation because of quant-issues. It is represented by 90% of the data budget invested in Agencies and Consultants driving implementation and re-implementation and hyper-customization of the code. 

Data is important. I believe it can help drive your business strategy smartly. But, a data-first strategy, defined as above, is nuts. It will only slow down your progress and allow your competitors to crush you like a bug (even if you are a top player in your market today!).

You should reject data-first.

You should accept data-with.

Assuming you have a great product and/or service for the world, in our context the most important thing to do is to focus on content next. That will quickly be followed by amazing, incredible marketing (owned first, earned next and paid as the final piece of the puzzle). Along the way, rather than over-indexing on a data obsession before everything, use data as an aid to keep getting smarter. For how to go about this, use my wonderful Analytics Ladder of Awesomeness:


Start with your initial marketing initiatives, at the bottom. As your marketing becomes more savvy, start climbing the ladder. Collect data, find insights, action them, use more data, look for smarter insights, if you come up short, go up one more step in the ladder. Rinse, and repeat.

From a tools/data collection strategy perspective, you'll invest in a free tool first (and there is a free tool for pretty much everything, and free data is everywhere – for example you don't need any tool to tell you that Esurance's Facebook strategy is a dud, just scroll through their public posts, the average amplification rate is a tiny 20, two and a zero!). Exhaust the free tool, take the initial steps in the ladder of awesomeness, make the organization smarter. Then, move to a paid one as you deal with more complex challenges. Make sure this comes with a commensurate investment in smart, really smart analysts (and not report writers). Climb up the ladder some more.

 You are going to drive your organization to use data to make smart quantitative and qualitative decisions along the way. You'll execute a data-with strategy. Perhaps it is best to think of it as a data-with business success first strategy.

Please don't have a data-first strategy. It is the kiss of death. And innovation. And people. And anything amazing.

Three simple, but deadly myths. Now you know how to avoid them.

All the best!


If you want to read more of his posts, check out Avinash Kaushik's page on The Art Of. If you want to know more about The Art Of and any of its brands, ask your questions here

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