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In my opinion

The perils of the growing digital industrial complex

A university communications and marketing director tries to cut through the bafflegab.


As he left office in January 1961, American President Dwight Eisenhower warned of a military-industrial complex gripping the United States. His primary concern was the creation of a permanent armaments industry needing to feed itself with ever-escalating demand for its products at ever-escalating costs to the taxpayer. And so it came to be.

Although far less ominous, a similar trend seems to be at work across the digital analytics sector. According to forecasts from market research firm IDC, sales of big data and business analytics software are expected to increase by 50 percent by 2019, rising from $122 billion to $187 billion annually worldwide. The numbers reflect something that shows up every day in the inboxes and voice mails of marketers and student recruiters across the country: unsolicited sales calls from digital analytics firms.

For university marketers on the receiving end of the phone line, the pitch begins innocently enough. A man (they always seem to be men) introduces himself and declares the name of his company. There’s your first clue. The company name is some awful blend of two words clumsily mashed together, like DigiMart or InfoShop or DataStore. And, within 30 seconds of the conversation, I guarantee he’s asking me if I’m “leveraging” something.

The conversation goes on from there. “Do you want to reach more prospective students? Do you want to reach audiences worldwide?” At this point I reach deep into my keenly honed marketing intellect and answer confidently, “Yes!”

That’s usually when the discussion descends into confusing bafflegab. First he asks me what “platforms” we’re using to communicate with students. I mutter something about our president generally speaking from a podium. Then he unleashes the words “optimization,” “customization” and “scalability” all in one sentence. I counter with an anecdote about posting more cute animal stories to social media. Finally, he hits me with his plan for “actionable attribution modelling.” I concede. Suddenly I have a solution to a problem I never thought I had.

Where the military industry has used fear to drive demand, the digital industrial complex uses a unique combination of shame, confusion and multi-syllabic techno-babble. Move over academics. Your supposed monopoly on dense prose has a 21st century competitor, armed with a highfalutin’ snobbery about data that would leave even the most committed member of the Ivory Tower cowed.

I assume this is part of their tactics. In economics it’s called “asymmetric information.” Put simply, it’s when the seller has greater knowledge than the buyer. In my case, I concede that this is an ever-present danger. In health care, it is exemplified by the relationship between doctor and patient. However, I’m not holding out hope that universal insurance against poor marketing decisions is coming down the pipe to protect me from myself.

What I am sure of is that I’m not alone. One analysis by Cheryl Slover-Linett of Slover Linett Strategies argues that “there’s a lot of chaos” in the social media realm and that we are in our “toddler years” in trying to cope with the complexities of modern media.

Earlier in 2016, 300 marketing professionals in Canada’s public sector were invited to participate in an anonymous survey related to their experience in this area. As Nicole Gibson writes of this survey, previous concerns about operating with inexperienced staff have been “replaced with concerns over technology adoption, strategy and goal measurement.”

No doubt the survey had to be anonymous. Few are willing to admit that they are lost in a sea of numbers and data points. A widely circulated quote attributed to Dan Ariely of Duke University neatly summarizes what I suspect is the actual nature of most peer-to-peer discussions on this subject across the marketing world: “Big data is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it.”

In this environment, the word “strategy” is used as a verbal cudgel aimed at making people feel small and simple. It cowers over all choices like a guilty conscience for every decision made that is not backed by three gigabytes of data. Reams of paperwork outlining a so-called “strategy” proliferate, sometimes far outpacing the media content actually being produced.  What of instinct and experience? Such quaint notions are relegated to museums and episodes of Mad Men. But without due care and attention, the common axiom “what gets measured gets done” can slip into a byzantine mess of meetings and spreadsheets more aptly captured by the phrase “what gets measured gets bureaucratic.”

I admit the comparison is a bit melodramatic. The consequences of a digital industrial complex are miniscule when evaluated against a perennial arms race led by the world’s global superpower. But, for a data-heavy and data-loving sector like postsecondary education, the perils of ignoring the growing digital industrial complex are real. The picture of administrators huddled around spreadsheets and fine-tuning their PowerPoints is an image all too easy to conjure, and far too removed from a real and deep understanding of what our students and researchers need.

An entire U.S. presidential election appears to have been won on the instincts of America’s marketer-in-chief. However repugnant his views may be, it’s hard to argue that Donald Trump’s instincts weren’t a major factor in tapping into the anger and angst that propelled him to victory. Neglecting this instinct, as it turns out, comes at a hefty price.

To abandon our instincts and experience by wholly embracing the analytics industry without scepticism is to feed the growing complex, surrendering to the digital salespeople beating down our collective doors. After all, it didn’t take a trail of rich data to lead any digital salesperson to me. All they needed was a phone number and a quivering voice. The latter offering them the self-assurance they needed to shame, confuse and baffle me into submission.

Kim McKechney is executive director, communications and marketing, at the University of Regina.

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