Optimize or Gut Check? How Number Crunching is Overtaking Everything

Posted on May 12, 2015 by Media Culture

The advice in business books tends to go through trends – and it seems like the tide is changing.

For years, the idea of “trusting your gut” and “going with the unpredictable” was the mantra. From Malcolm Gladwell encouraging people to rely on snap judgments to Dan Ariely’s revelations that the best judgment calls are pretty illogical, the message seemed to be the same – do a gut check and go with what you feel.

Data optimization for everything? However, the tide is changing and optimization through detailed data analysis seems to be the way to go. Optimization has become a bit of a blanket term for improving anything. It’s become such a popular concept that everything from Twitter profiles, sex drives and three-day weekends can be “optimized” for better results. The popularity of optimization type articles on Huffington Post’s website alone is enough to signal that people want to do better at anything or everything – but what can it do for business?

Data for decision-making. Optimization speaks to the desire to do what we do better – from housework to business – but analysis can be cold and unfeeling sometimes. Data can be a reliable decision-making tool, but in some cases it can turn sour.

For example, search engine optimization (SEO) practices have significantly changed the way that websites and pages are built. They’ve turned most sites into forms that Google – and users – will love. When a new format (like Buzzfeed’s clickbait-style headlines) begins to prove itself with analytics, everyone else follows suit. Now optimization firms are encouraging companies to have 3- to 10-minute video introduced by a “magnetic headline” like “Find the Perfect Coffee for Your Home Brew.”

The headline is followed by an information gap statement like “You won’t believe the simple trick I use when selecting coffee beans” – and then a direct call to action “Click play to get the key to a better cup of coffee.” The video plays, and halfway through it stops to request an email address – and voila, a lead is captured and a customer base is built.

Gut vs. data. This type of direct response online has developed not through gut checks and intuition but by hard number crunchers. Sites look similar because they work. It’s a matter of finding what works through numbers and doing it. It’s paying off for advertisers and brands that are seeing more results from their optimization strategies. Based on the numbers, it’s clear which strategies, layout, language and images an advertiser should use. All values flatten and the right method is selected based on what is optimal.

Critics worry about our data obsession. However, some critics worry that data obsession can carry over to personal lives and have some troubling consequences. The increase in the “optimization” mantra during the 20th century mirrored the popularity of Taylorism, a philosophy that increased industrial production by treating humans like machines.

It’s not hard to see the parallels, especially as technology continues to grow and offer more opportunities to optimize lives. The Apple Watch was released on March 9th and has potential to be a watershed moment for technology, just like the iPod and iPhone did in years past. Although there are multiple tools available on the device, the main focus is a fitness-tracking component.

For example, the watch will clock and store physiological data – like heart rate, exercise time and even steps – in order to help people optimize their experience and improve their health. But should you keep that much focus on your own personal optimization?

Only time will tell. Taking a data-based approach to website pages is one thing, but many people may find that a gut-based approach may very well work for the rest.

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