Daniel Burstein

Customer-First Marketing: Use data to make sure the customer always wins

March 17th, 2017

Every year when I’m in Las Vegas for MarketingSherpa Summit, I find myself on the casino floor at some point. All roads in Vegas lead through the casino.

There’s bright flashing lights and sounds. Lively chatter. General bacchanalia.

Gambling looks like a lot of fun, and many people enjoy it. But other than a few bucks here or there, I don’t partake. Because, as someone who has written about evidence-based marketing for these many years, I suspect the odds are not in my favor.

The house always wins. In the gambler-casino relationship, the casino has the slight edge that, over billions of transactions, generates positive cash flow. This is a business after all, and revenue for the fountains, the curved glass and steel towers, the futuristic trams — it has to come from somewhere.

So when I had a chance to interview Jeff Ma, I wanted his opinion on the customer-marketer relationship. Who has the edge?

The customer and the marketer shouldn’t be opposed

“I think ultimately it’s not a similar thing because the difference . . . this is like honestly one of the things I don’t think people realize — the customer and the marketer shouldn’t be opposed. There’s not a contentious relationship. This should actually be a very positive relationship,” Jeff told me.

“If I were a customer, as long as the marketer had my best intentions, I wouldn’t give a s%&@ if they knew everything about me and all the data about me. As long as they’re not going to harm or use that against me, I want them to have as much information as they can.”

Jeff Ma is currently the senior director of analytics for Twitter, was previously ESPN’s predictive analytics expert, and is perhaps best known for his role on the infamous MIT Blackjack Team. Using creativity, math and teamwork, Ma created a card-counting method that helped the group win millions in Las Vegas. He was the inspiration for the book Bringing Down the House and the Kevin Spacey movie 21.

I was interviewing Jeff because he is a featured speaker at MarketingSherpa Summit 2017 in Las Vegas, and his response was right in line with discoveries from MarketingSherpa’s recent research.

For example, “showing personalized ads based on data about me is invasive” was not a major factor in why consumers blocked online ads.

However, that part Jeff mentioned about “as long as the marketer had my best intentions” was huge. Customer-first marketing was the key difference between how satisfied and unsatisfied customers described a company’s marketing, showing that the intentions behind the marketing play a critical role in the relationship with a customer.

Here are a few more quick takeaways from my conversation with Jeff to help you look at your data through a new lens.

Implicit vs. explicit data

Customers give you explicit data through their words (surveys, form fills, etc), but they provide implicit data by their actions (geotracking, what articles they read, etc.).

As an example, Jeff tentatively used a controversial subject — the last election. “The polling data would be considered to be explicit signals. [It wasn’t] very good for whatever reason,” he said.

“But implicit signals potentially were better…if you hear about some of the things the Trump campaign did in terms of trying to do A/B testing on Facebook to see what messages resonated with people and then going deeply into those areas and tactically attacking those areas from the right messaging that was inferred from people’s behavior clicking on ads on social media, that’s a great example of them trying to use implicit signals on social media to craft the message that spoke to their constituents.”

Data gives you an edge, but it’s a slight one

Data is valuable, yes, but it can also give us a false confidence. The solidity and specificity of numbers can provide a sense of certainty. But if you’re looking for absolutes, you may be having too high of an expectation of your analytics and metrics.

“So data, what it does is it gives you a better chance of winning. It increases your odds. In blackjack, your odds go from being at about a -3% chance of winning to all of a sudden having a 2% chance to win. It improves your odds by about 5%, but that’s still far from 100%. If you have a 51% chance of winning versus a 48.5% chance of winning, that’s the difference,” Jeff said.

The value, then, is at volume. For example, if you have a 51% chance of winning one coin flip; that won’t make much of a difference. However, if you have a 51% chance of winning and conduct millions of coin flips, you’re much more likely to end up on top.

“It’s all about the margin on these things — the same thing with marketing using data and analytics. Is it going to increase your ROI on each deal by 100%? No. It’s probably going to increase your ROI by a percentage, a decimal point percentage. But, the key is to do this long enough or focus on it long enough or stick with something long enough that that small advantage becomes reality. For us in blackjack, we had to play millions of hands to realize that advantage,” Jeff explained.

Be unconventional

The upside of that slight edge is the chance to do something unconventional when you know you have the edge.

But again, you must stick with it. Just because you have the edge doesn’t mean each individual decision will go in your favor. The increased probability means that over time you are more likely to end up successful — if, and it’s a big if, you don’t let early failures derail you.

Jeff used football as an example. “It’s well known analytically that teams do not go for it enough on fourth down at every level of football. The biggest [reason] they don’t do it is because it’s very unconventional. When you don’t get fourth down, it’s very fatalistic. You give the ball up.”

“But if you happen to not get it on one fourth down, which is going to happen, that doesn’t mean you quit; that means you keep going.” Jeff said. “The odds are in your favor over the long haul.”


So data gives you an edge, but not an absolute answer. Part of the reason is that, in a complex environment, you can’t be sure that the number you’re seeing is a result of the behavior you hope it is.

jeff ma

Image source: Bluebox Research

 “If you look at a large enough data set, there are going to be correlations all the time. But understanding whether that really is something that’s predictive and causal is very hard unless you do real experimentation where you say, ‘Here’s one sample set. Here’s another sample set. We’re going to treat one sample set differently and go into the real world and do things,’” Jeff said.

This is the real benefit of A/B testing. “Marketers actually can do experimentation pretty well because they have the ability to show different messages and different things to different subsets of people and, hopefully, get that in front of a bunch of people and very quickly change based on what the results say,” Jeff said.

Know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em

Hopefully you’re heading to MarketingSherpa Summit solely for the content, like Jeff’s featured speaker session, right?

But just guessing that a few of our readers might also want to try their hands on the casino floor while in Vegas, I couldn’t let a man who’s won millions of dollars at the tables get off the phone before I asked him for a little advice on which games offered the best opportunity for winning.

“Learn basic strategy and play blackjack using basic strategy. Or play craps and just play the pass line and take max odds. Almost all the other bets in the casino have tremendous edge for the casino.”

You can follow Daniel Burstein, Senior Director of Editorial Content, MarketingSherpa, on Twitter @DanielBurstein.

You might also like

Learn more about data at MarketingSherpa Summit 2017 in Las Vegas

Website Analytics: How to use data to determine where to test

Marketing Analytics: 6 simple steps for interpreting your data

Online Marketing Tests: How could you be so sure?

Learn more about marketing experimentation in the University of Florida/MECLABS Institute Communicating Value and Web Conversion graduate certificate program

Daniel Burstein

About Daniel Burstein

Daniel Burstein, Senior Director of Editorial Content, MECLABS. Daniel oversees all content and marketing coming from the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa brands while helping to shape the editorial direction for MECLABS – digging for actionable information while serving as an advocate for the audience. Daniel is also a speaker and moderator at live events and on webinars. Previously, he was the main writer powering MarketingExperiments publishing engine – from Web clinics to Research Journals to the blog. Prior to joining the team, Daniel was Vice President of MindPulse Communications – a boutique communications consultancy specializing in IT clients such as IBM, VMware, and BEA Systems. Daniel has 18 years of experience in copywriting, editing, internal communications, sales enablement and field marketing communications.

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