How The New York Times and BuzzFeed merge data and creative

The goal of any marketer is to gain a deeper understanding of what their consumers care about. There are usually two sides to that coin: the underlying data that captures consumer trends and the creative campaigns that aim to elicit some kind of consumer response.

But how can data drive creativity? Allison Murphy, vice president of ad innovation at The New York Times, said there isn’t a line between the two.

Data-driven creative is just creative. The best opportunities between data and creative are all around a deeper understanding of what people really care about. Ultimately, that’s the shared mission of great data thinking and insights, but also great creative work,” Murphy said at Wednesday’s (5 December) IAB Mobile and Data Symposium.

Whether during the pre-campaign ideation phase or the targeting and attribution phase, it’s important not to get bogged down by the enormity of data. Edwin Wong, senior vice president of research and insights at BuzzFeed, told The Drum that advertisers often forget data that is just a compilation of human responses.

“Many of us treat [data as] algorithms…and we fail to realize there’s a human behind it that’s doing something for a reason; and if we don’t understand those macro-factors, we tend to make data decisions that actually don’t do that well for the consumer at all,” Wong said.

Wong said evaluating those macro-factors uncovered a larger trend in media “where digital is leading to physical, which is leading to literal.” Consumers want to be changed by the medium, and that has shifted the lean-back experience to one where consumers are leaning in.

Wong said this has informed product launches such as BuzzFeed’s Tasty-branded cookware line, as 67% of Tasty consumers cook a meal they viewed online.

When it comes to actually reaching the right audience, the Times’s Murphy told The Drum it’s important for advertisers not to think too narrowly.

“You have to be able to break down and figure out what’s the audience you care about, so we can tell you more about that. That’s what we’ve been trying to get better at. The audiences themselves are changing. We have a joke right now that people come [to the Times] for Trump and they stay for turkey recipes,” said Murphy.

Murphy said the Times uses its Readerscope tool to gain more granular insights on readers by following them through the site, which not only paints a well-rounded picture of an audience for advertisers, but also shows the best places where creative should live on the site.

Consumers are actively engaging with content. What they read and who they share it with is valuable information. As Wong said, the next step is tagging those responses.

“If you can actually aggregate in a smart way using meta-tagging, then you start to understand … why people do what they do. In a sense, you’re putting structure around human behavior. That’s all creative and data actually mean to us,” Wong told The Drum.

Data can bridge the disconnect between marketers and their audience. Wong said a recent study from BuzzFeed shows that 89% of millennials and younger believe that attributes such as male and female aren’t binary, but rather are on a spectrum.

Wong said having that kind of a flexible understanding of data assets can shine a light on how consumers view themselves, which ultimately drives purposeful, better-resonating creative.

Still, robust data collection is an expensive proposition. The Times and BuzzFeed, though vastly different publications, both have the means to invest in data-driven creative.

“That’s not something most publishers can do. We’re fortunate to be able to make those investments and know it’s important, but it’s a big investment if you want to be doing new things in data. It takes analysts, it takes technologies, it takes building foundations that are expensive, and then adding more cost to be doing new things,” said Murphy.

Data and creative are inseparable. Murphy and Wong know firsthand the benefit of publishers combining them to keep up with changing audiences, and sharing valuable insights with advertisers who are willing to spend to reach audiences more effectively.