A Harvard Business Review case study recently posed a provocative question: when should humans listen to algorithms vs. when should they trust their own experience and intuition? For this case study, the issue related to which of two employees to choose for a promotion. But, given the widespread applications for the use of big data and the power of predictive analytics, the question could be applied to any field or area of business practice—including content marketing.

When should content marketers listen to the algorithms instead of relying on their own instincts, which have been finely honed over time?

Content Marketers Err on the Side of Intuition

In the fifth annual Customer Experience (CX) Industry Report, UserTesting, 3,900 product, marketing, design, and research professionals weighed in on issues related to customer experience, including ways in which technology like artificial intelligence is likely to impact the field. About half (49%) of respondents indicated that they felt their organizations put too much emphasis on quantitative evidence when making decisions. “There are significant failure rates in quantitative testing (such as A/B tests) and surveys and analytics often fail to explain customer behavior,” the report says.

Chris Hornak is the owner of Blog Hands, a blog writing service for small businesses and digital marketing agencies. Ideally, he says, “a balance of intuition and data-driven decision making” is best when developing content marketing strategies. Both are needed to be successful in the field. “A campaign based on intuition alone won’t fly with upper management for a good reason. They’ll usually want fact-based data to support your decisions to minimize risk.” But, he adds, “a campaign executed purely on data will likely lack a vision that connects with the reader.”

Content marketers point to a balance between algorithmic logic and personal intuition and perspective for maximizing marketing results.

Algorithms and Intuition: Finding the Right Balance

Adam Thompson is SEO/PPC manager with Comodo SSL Store. Despite the fact that he’s a digital marketing manager with 15 years of experience in data-driven, ROI-focused marketing strategy and multiple certifications in marketing analytics, Thompson says: “Relying on data too heavily can lead to mistakes. Data can only take you so far, because in marketing we’re ultimately dealing with humans with complex lives, emotions, and decision-making processes. He offers some specific examples of when Personal intuition should take precedence over data:

  • For giving data meaning. Data, he says, tells us “what”—what’s working, what people are doing on a website, what they’re reading, etc. But, he says: “it usually doesn’t tell us ‘why,’ and it often doesn’t tell us ‘how’.” The “how” is where human brainpower comes in.
  • For questions we haven’t asked yet. “Data tends to be gathered, analyzed, and presented to answer specific questions,” Thompson says. “If the data hasn’t been gathered or analyzed to consider a specific variable, it probably won’t cover that variable very well. It takes a human to recognize what perspectives or variables should be considered.”
  • For new ideas. “If you focus too much on data to drive your marketing decisions, you’ll tend to end up trying things that already work,” Thompson says. “Intuition trumps data for coming up with new ideas.” However, he adds, data has a role to play in helping to inform and guide intuition.

Ideally, algorithm vs. intuition isn’t an either-or proposition. Finding the right balance between the two is where marketers can achieve maximum value. That’s particularly true when it comes to formulating strategy says Jamie Posnanski, managing director, global content practice lead, with Accenture Interactive. “Particularly in content marketing, ultimately there needs to be a human being who is preparing or developing the content strategy that is going to engage with the audience in the right way,” says Posnanski. Yes, he says, leverage the tools that can help you from an analytics perspective, but, “ultimately it’s going to come down to the marketer to determine how to tell the story that’s going to help them engage best with the customer.”

Thompson agrees. “Marketing is all about reaching and appealing to humans who make decisions based largely on emotions. Hard data can only go so far in helping you communicate at an emotional level.”