August 28, 2008

Analytics vs Instinct

Many thoughts I have introduced in the DonorCast NewsWatch cover the topic of “quality” in data mining and predictive modeling. I came across this article and realized that while I have made suggestions and raised questions about how to, for example, build a model predicting major donor likelihood, I have done little to discuss implementation of this work. I want to use this post to address one of the implementation challenges I encounter most: analytics (i.e. modeling scores) vs. instinct (i.e. VP's institutional experience).

While analytics and predictive modeling is not a completely fresh concept in the philanthropy world, it is young enough to be both misunderstood and mistrusted by some. After all, higher education, health care, and the arts were successfully completing ambitious campaigns long before RFM scores became a standard tool. Many in the philanthropic community still rely heavily on “gut feeling” or instinct for determining a donor's intention or affinity, prospect assignment, or more broadly, campaign readiness and viability.

The post I found discusses a summary of Ian Ayres' conclusion from his best-selling book, Super Crunchers, that “intuition and experiential expertise is losing out time and time again to number crunching.” I agree with the author who asserts that while data mining can offer concrete, and in some cases unforeseen insight, there is still an important role in business (or in our world, philanthropy) for experience, personal understanding, and basic qualitative characteristics.

Josh and I both often recommend that analytics be blended with organizational experience and environment. Achieving an effective balance may prove tricky. Convincing members of the “gut” society to buy into analytics integration may prove trickiest.

To show the value of analytics integration, try a simple control group. If you create an annual giving model, take 100 names at random and make your appeals. Then take the 100 highest scoring in the model not in the control group and offer the same appeal. Compare renewal rates and gift amounts. You may surprise people with the results.

Analytics versus Good, Old-Fashioned Creative Gut Feeling

I really enjoyed a recent post I found on the Precision Marketing online magazine. Jenny Hoffbrand discusses Ian Ayres' new book called
Super Crunchers and a quote from the book that really summarizes the value of using analytics in the business as opposed to relying on your “intuition” or gut-feeling: “Intuition and experiential expertise is losing out time and time again to number crunching. Businesses and governments are relying more and more on databases to guide their decisions.”

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