Courtney Eckerle

Live from MarketingSherpa Summit 2017: Jeff Ma on harnessing the power of analytics to better understand customers

April 12th, 2017

As a member of the famous MIT Blackjack Team and the inspiration for the main character in the book Bringing Down the House and the Kevin Spacey film 21, Jeff Ma knows a thing or two about gambling.

Scratch that — Jeff Ma isn’t a gambler. That’s because every move in blackjack has one correct decision. It’s just about understanding basic strategy, and implementing it. Remove human instincts, or “gut feelings,” and you will stack the odds in your favor.

Currently the senior director of analytics at Twitter (after selling his startup to the social network) and a former predictive analytics expert for ESPN, Jeff spoke to the MarketingSherpa Summit audience about how to use data and analytics to come out on top with customers.

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By using data to overcome emotional biases, Ma said, not only can marketers win big with customers, but they’ll also build influence within their organizations.

Learning to make better decisions

It all begins with increasing your odds by using basic strategy.

“A lot of people don’t use basic strategy, which is why we’re so bad at making decisions as a people,” Jeff said. “Decisions are best when you have data behind them.”

One common mistake people fall prey to is omission bias. Basically, people don’t want to be perceived as the agent for harm to themselves — or their company. As Jeff put it, people would rather make a decision with a lower chance of success if the “dealer” or “fate” beats them, rather than going with a higher chance of success that, if it fails, will mean they’ve made a “bad” decision.

Or to put it in Vegas terms: big risk, big reward.

There are no bad decisions — only ones informed by data

“Decisions are best when you have data behind them,” Jeff said, adding that most importantly, you must fully understand the data.

Marketers have to understand the difference between the right decision versus the right outcome. Win or lose, a decision fully informed by data was “absolutely correct,” he said.

“Focus on the process over the results,” he said.

Marketers have to be continually optimizing and focusing on the bigger picture of the process over the individual results.

What can we learn from the past?

Blackjack is a beatable game because what you see impacts what you’re going to see, Jeff said.

Whereas every spin of the roulette wheel is independent, blackjack is a game “with a memory like an elephant,” he said.

Like in blackjack, when testing, marketers can make better decisions by avoiding loss aversion and group think.

“You can’t make decisions to avoid conflict. Otherwise you’ll never be able to innovate,” he said.

Disrupt with analytics

The notion of privacy is changing quite a bit, Jeff said, and customers are learning to trust more, “as long as we’re using [data] to make the person’s experience better.”

Twitter gets 50 terabytes of data every day, he said, and when deciphering it, it’s important to understand that data isn’t just math, it’s science.

That’s why it’s important that marketers understand a scientific approach to testing and data. What that means, he said, is taking a long-term perspective.

Implementing a data-driven environment is a long-term payoff. It’s not just a matter of how much data you collect, but how you can use what data you have effectively.

Jeff advises hiring “natural skeptics who will challenge every notion to expand your thinking, and ask the questions that might be outside of your scope.”

Marketers must constantly improve, and questioning your beliefs is a vital part of that. If you’re not constantly betting on your ideas, you won’t win.

Jeff said there is this idea of, “if I don’t play anymore, I won’t lose.” But marketer’s need to take an approach of, “If I don’t play anymore, I won’t win.”

Many times, he said, this means taking a long-term perspective, which requires gaining buy-in with those above you.

“I’m sure you guys have quarterly sales you’ve got to get to. But that can oftentimes lead to bad decision making,” he said.

Having a long-term perspective and plan for being data-driven is vital. But what separates the “winners” is the dedication to sticking to the plan and believing in the system.

“The hardest thing to do is to stick with it,” he said.

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Courtney Eckerle

About Courtney Eckerle

With a focus on aspirational, customer-first marketing, Courtney’s goal has been to produce clear, interesting and actionable external content for MarketingSherpa readers. This has included writing over 300 case studies, moderating live event interviews, and producing video content. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, Mass Communications and Film Studies from Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind., and was a correspondent for USA Today College prior to joining MECLABS Institute.

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