Even If Disney Isn’t Using Data, It’s Still Using Data

Part of Netflix’s reputation over the last several years as it has gotten into more and more production of original material is how and when it has used the data it gleans from subscriber behavior to influence its decisions. Movies are produced or acquired despite demonstrable numbers indicating they will be massive money-making hits, TV shows are cancelled because the data doesn’t support their continued production expenses. Other media companies do likewise to various extents.

In a recent interview with Peter Kafka at the 2019 Code Media conference, Disney executive Kevin Mayer weighed in on how Disney+ may approach its decision making process when considering new projects to greenlight and which current programming to continue producing. His comments were designed, it seems, to be as ambivalent and vague as possible:

“We might not always follow the data. We might have great, creative ideas that don’t fit right into where the data would point you to make a program, so we’re going to use both our judgment or the ideas we have in place, the capacities that we have in place, and the data that tells us what to make. Certainly, we will be paying attention to that.”

Basically, he’s saying, sometimes they will and sometimes they won’t.

Conversations like this are likely happening in the majority of companies both in the U.S. and around the world. Products are introduced or discontinued based on data, advertising campaigns are altered based on the data coming in. The data analytics field is estimated to be worth $166 billion and is expected to grow to $260 billion in the next three years. As more and more of the customer journey becomes quantitative and trackable – whether it’s online with cookies and tracking codes or offline with RFID or simply loyalty card scanning – mining the potential insights that could be found in the raw numbers becomes seen as increasingly essential.

Meyer is clearly talking about the kind of behavior-based data that might be available to Disney showing what programming is being watched, for how long, where the exit points are and so on. But what’s left unsaid in the constant fetishization of data and analytics is one important point that rings true even beyond those behind-the-scenes numbers that need to be crunched by humans or AI:

Sales is data.

Far too often, marketers and other professionals appear to separate “data” from “sales.” The former is something you dig into for insights and clues about what you should or shouldn’t do going forward. It’s powerful having such impressive and (hopefully) clear numbers at your fingertips, allowing you to feel confident in some decision because you have the data to back up your thinking. Just as often, in my experience, those same professionals completely ignore or dismiss actual sales numbers.

Put it this way: If you’re analyzing “completed transactions” but not accounting for the total purchase amount or the kinds of goods bought, you’re doing it wrong.

It’s ridiculous to draw any differentiation between them, and just as ridiculous for anyone to act as if any executive anywhere in any industry isn’t using some form of data to influence her or his decision making. They may be looking at *different* numbers, but they’re still looking at numbers. And if it’s just sales or subscriber data being used to guide thinking, that still counts, even if it doesn’t meet the modern collective definition of “data.”

We can laud companies like Netflix for taking a chance on an ambitious project like The Irishman, one that remained unproduced for a decade or more precisely because no other studio saw enough commercial potential to justify its projected expense. While it may have done so in support of Martin Scoresese’s creative vision, it also likely did so because the data showed it was likely to produce X amount of new/continued subscribers and was therefore a good choice.

The same can be said of the theatrical exhibition industry. Many have (rightly) bemoaned how mass market theaters aren’t interested in playing small, indie films for very long because the big studios want as many screens as are available for their latest franchise blockbuster. In reality, those decisions are being made based on the best data available to them, the number of tickets being sold.

It’s all data, it may just indicate different behaviors, intentions or actions. When one company says it is using data in its decision-making, hopefully that includes actual sales figures. When one company says it isn’t, it should be understood that they’re still looking at plenty of important numbers, just not the ones you’re probably thinking of.

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