Instinct vs. Data

by T Taylor

Instinct:Data1Words. Pictures. Stories. Ideas. These are four things we work with every day. Our partners expect us to know the best ways to put these together when branding their business, communicating their story and promoting their goods or services.

David, our president and creative director simplifies what we do as “instincts, ideas and implementation” or, the “three i’s.” I like that. It’s easy to remember and understand.

But does it say enough about what we do? That’s a big question these days. How much do you say or write when trying to get a message across in the most effective way. Coming from a measurable marketing background, I also like sharing data and results like, return on investment (ROI) when explaining what we do.

Three I’s and an r. How’s that grab you?

Our partners almost always want more information. More copy. More text. Why? They have important messages—so they naturally assume all of them need to be stated.

My “instinct” tells me that’s a wrong way to go. But, is there data to back that up?

Yes, more than you can imagine. Today you can justify any claim if you look hard enough. We see this all the time in politics. Just when you thought something was done, new information comes out showing data to the contrary.

We used to write exhaustive strategic marketing plans; some hundreds of pages. It was the norm and expected. The problem was, no one read them. Today, all our strategic plans are around 30 pages long and much more effective. It’s actually harder for us to write shorter copy.

Mark Twain said it well: “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.”

Long copy in marketing has been the standard for decades. Even today for online business, data shows that long copy typically sells better than short copy. Marketing Experiments did a series of tests for clients to show the effect of copy length on Website conversion rates. In all their tests, the long copy outperformed the short copy by wide margins.

In his book Ogilvy on Advertising, David Ogilvy says, “All my experience says that for a great many products, long copy sells more than short … advertisements with long copy convey the impression that you have something important to say, whether people read the copy or not.”

Dr. Charles Edwards, former dean of the Graduate School of Retailing at New York University is quoted as saying, “The more facts you tell, the more you sell. An advertisement’s chance for success invariably increases as the number of pertinent merchandise facts included in the advertisement increases.”

Really? It all “sounds” true—but I have my doubts…

First, there are two things that aren’t measured here: quality and creativity. Everyone likes creativity, a turn of a phrase, snappy, surprising and enjoyable copy. Simple messages that are well written and creatively displayed always seem to serve people best.

Data is not good at measuring creativity and quality.

Guy Kawasaki of Apple Computer fame, now a speaker and author, is famous for doing presentations without any words. No endless streams of bullet points. Just images. Of course he speaks over those. People love and appreciate his creativity in a world of words.

This goes much deeper than our example of words and copy length.

Instinct mixed with creativity drives innovation. Most of the world’s greatest breakthroughs in science, technology, arts, etc. happen without relying on established data and rules.

I can think of dozens of rules that have guided us over the years. Many have great data to back them up—but at some point—they become outdated and ineffective. How do I know?


“Trust your own instinct. Your mistakes might as well be your own, instead of someone else’s.”
–Billy Wilder