The Myth of Data-Driven Decision Making
Everyone who works in marketing has a buzzword or phrase they secretly (or not so secretly) despise. Mine is “data-driven,” particularly in the context of decision-making in higher education marketing.
My core issue with the term is that it establishes unrealistic expectations for most businesses. Sure, the corporate giants of the world (oil companies, banks, media conglomerates) have visibility into massive amounts of data and can make precise decisions that are truly data-driven.
But the vast majority of organizations—including higher education institutions—draw from much more limited data. At most, data is a tool that can, along with other tools like observation and experience, guide the inferences that lead to better decisions.
This is why you’ll always see me use the term “data-informed” over “data-driven.”
Why Schools Should Embrace “Data-Informed” over “Data-Driven”
Getting data right requires significant time and resources—time and resources that most schools don’t have, especially if they’re managing efforts internally.
The typical student enrollment journey has dozens of touchpoints and connections from multiple sources—from the ads run in lead gen campaigns to the platform students use to register. Connecting those sources and getting them to tell a cohesive story is a major undertaking.
How, then, should schools proceed in this reality? They must accept that their data is imperfect. They must work to gather better data going forward. And just as importantly, they must understand that even in the best-case scenario, data is predictive—not definitive.
There are often multiple ways to interpret a data set. The person analyzing data is always making a judgment call. They use inferences, context, and lived experience to determine the final course of action.
Does that allow for more room for error? Sure. But it’s a realistic approach that is truer to life. It provides space for the inevitability of imperfection—and schools must be willing to act despite that. Because if you wait around for the data to tell you what to do, you’ll be waiting an awfully long time.
True Leaders Embrace Data-Informed Decision-Making
Proceeding without the objective certainty of a data-driven decision isn’t easy. But true leaders are accustomed to operating in uncertainty. You could even say that uncertainty is a significant factor that separates management from leadership. While management teams tend to depend on data to track and optimize performance, leadership, by definition, involves looking ahead into the unknown.
I think of this expression attributed to motivational speaker Wayne Dyer: “The wake doesn’t drive the boat.” Leaders can’t always make decisions by looking behind them. Sometimes, they’ll need to make decisions with imperfect and partial information. When that’s the case, it’s imperative that they’re humble about the accuracy of their data and to what extent they rely on it in the first place.
It’s Time to Become Comfortable with Less Data
Recently, Google rolled out Google Analytics 4, a measurement solution designed to replace Universal Analytics. Certain limitations of GA4, along with digital marketing trends such as the phasing out of third-party cookies and an increased emphasis on privacy, make it more challenging to acquire data in the student enrollment journey. In other words: now is the time to get comfortable acting with incomplete data.
Remember that data isn’t the only factor that influences decisions. So be ready to fill the gaps with lived experience, expertise from trusted partners, and a test-and-learn approach to see what’s right for your organization.
At MindMax, we’re well-versed in making data-informed decisions to drive higher education marketing and enrollment engagements. Reach out to learn more.