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I grew up in the far western suburbs of Chicago; so far west that when I would meet people from somewhere other than Chicago I would describe my home town as “the last ditch of civilization between Chicago and Des Moines – west of me it’s nothing but cornfields.”

I suspect my family was similar to many middle class families of the 70’s and 80’s. We weren’t big on summer vacations. We didn’t own a vacation home or migrate to the same summer spot like a small gaggle of monarch butterflies. Still, there were occasions when we would take a long weekend or a week off and relax. My childhood vacation memories (with the lone exception of a trip to Disney World) were of driving north into Wisconsin.  We had two favorite vacation spots as a family. We’d take a short drive to Lake Geneva or take a longer drive way up north to Sturgeon Bay.

My family wasn’t the only one. I remember every one of my childhood friends also vacationed in Wisconsin.  My best friend’s family owned some land in Bariboo. During our teenage years we terrorized the locals with our shenanigans. Two of my neighborhood friends also went north into Whitewater and Eau Claire. Looking at things through my teenage perspective, it was not too big a stretch to say that everyone I knew vacationed in Wisconsin.

Obviously, my knowledge of the vacationing habits of America’s middle class evolved with further experience. While attending Elmurst College in the near west Chicago suburbs, I finally met someone who grew up on the south side of Chicago. It turns out there is a well worn tradition among Chicagoans…south-siders typically vacation around Lake Michigan in the southwest corner of Michigan while those from the north and west sides of the city generally travel north into Wisconsin. Makes perfect sense, of course. I mean why start your family vacation off on the wrong foot by fighting city traffic if you don’t have to, right?

And yet, I remember at the time asking myself… “who the hell vacations in Michigan? They must be poor. Maybe they can’t afford to vacation in Wisconsin! That MUST be it!” Rather than re-thinking what I thought I knew, I instead drew conclusions and tried to squeeze these new findings into my pre-formed version of what I thought I knew about the world.

In reflecting back on this episode, here’s the most interesting thing to me: I’ve seen many business professionals afflicted by this very form of myopia countless times. This tends to be especially true when data is involved. Some of the smartest people I know have a tendency to make assumptions, draw incorrect contextual references, and generally make really huge mistakes when analyzing marketing data.

So, how can you avoid making these mistakes?

Here’s a few suggestions to get you started.

  1. Focus only on what you’re trying to learn – Always begin at the beginning. It’s so easy to suffer scope creep at this juncture. Do yourself a favor and be ruthless in your effort to keep your focus narrow and tight.
  2. Ask the right questions – Make sure the questions you are asking are directly tied to the outcomes. Again, its easy to get off track. If you’re surveying, ask tight questions designed to answer the question posed in #1 above, nothing more; same for pulling data if looking at analytics.
  3. Create an inquisitive culture – Organizational issues can sometimes impede truth-telling at the office. Make sure you recognize and reward people for asking the right questions and diligently investigating possible outcomes.
  4. Have the right mindset – Come at your problem with an open mind. Even the slightest assumption can derail you in any one of multiple steps in the process.
  5. Drive to find the cause – Please don’t stop your analysis once you find a correlation. It’s part of our marketing culture by now (and surely an overused phrase) but correlation does not equal causation.

These are just a few suggestions to get you started on the right path. What are your thoughts? How do you avoid drawing incorrect conclusions from your marketing data?

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Sean McGinnis

Director, Digital Marketing at Sears Parts Direct
Sean McGinnis is Director, Digital Marketing at Sears Parts Direct. He is also a (digital strategist, blogger, consultant ) and public speaker. You can find Sean on