The moneyballification of communication

I remember the days when sports, particularly baseball, were played and managed more by feel and intuition rather than strictly by the numbers. Unfortunately, those days are long gone. As sports adapt to a data-obsessed world, I fear the same thing is happening to the communication profession.

With the advent of Sabermetrics in the late '70s, later popularized by Michael Lewis’ book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game in 2003, a mind-numbing number of analytics have been developed to predict performance and dictate managerial decisions in professional sports.

In baseball, for example, batting average and ERA are the stats from the past.

Today, we have such esoteric measures as WAR (wins above replacement), VORP (value over replacement player), BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and DIPS (defense independent pitching statistics) to name just a few.

We are becoming so infatuated with the latest statistics that we’re losing sight of the art of baseball. As Baseball Prospectus author Russell A. Carleton wrote, “If there’s one thing that sabermetrics is guilty of, it’s idolizing the third decimal place.”

What these metrics fail to take into consideration are the many intangibles and human elements inherent in a sports competition. What about clubhouse culture? Momentum? Team chemistry?

Physical fitness? Base running acumen? Just plain bad luck? Managerial leadership? Or the use of PEDs?

With the communication industry’s current preoccupation with big data, we seem to be forgetting about the role our heads, hearts and guts play in creating and executing impactful communication that engages, triggers emotional reactions and moves people to action.

It’s this nuanced appreciation of the intangibles that no amount of data can replace. It’s only our visceral gut reactions and instincts that can spark the kind of creativity and human strength required to create communication that truly resonates.

Take for example Nike’s recent campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick and celebrating the 30th anniversary of one of the most iconic, memorable and enduring taglines — Just Do It. No amount of data analytics led to either this campaign or the famous tagline. Instead, it took an instinctive understanding of what drives and inspires athletes coupled with a keen sense of popular culture.

Or take State Street Global Advisor’s Fearless Girl campaign. The simple bronze statue of a young girl confidently staring down the iconic Wall Street bull sent a powerful message about gender diversity in corporate America.

This campaign, which won a total of 18 Cannes Lion awards, wasn’t conceived by sifting through volumes of numbers, but by startling creativity is driven by real human instincts and emotions.

Big data isn’t dead by any means, nor should it be. The increasing use of technology allows us to collect, store and analyze huge amounts of data. In fact, everyday people around the globe create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data — that’s 2.5 times 1018 power for you math geeks. Data science and analytics are a part of the modern communication landscape. But that data is used most successfully when coupled with the intangible qualities of creative thinking, emotional intelligence and human connection.

As Steve Kettmann, author of Baseball Maverick: How Sandy Alderson Revolutionized Baseball and Revived the Mets, wrote, “Like children, the numbers themselves are blameless. It’s how we use them — or misuse them. There is a risk that numbers become an end in themselves, and arcane stats proliferate.”

The reliance on big data in communication is irreversible. But we as professional communicators should not lose sight of the significant role our heads, hearts and guts play in creating strategy and creative and compelling storytelling. It’s the essential value we add for which data alone is no substitute.


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Kirk Stewart is the founder and CEO of KTStewart, a firm focused on enhancing value for 21st-century organizations through integrated corporate communications campaigns. He is a USC graduate and a member of the USC Annenberg Center for PR Board of Advisors.

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