If you haven’t seen the latest installment of the Captain America movies, I’d highly recommend it. Not just for the fun and excitement that Marvel is able to put into the big screen, but the main concept in the movie is something very close to home for retention and loyalty marketers. “Zola’s algorithm” is a deadly formula, based on predictive analytics, to eliminate people from the face of the earth based on their perceived threat to Hydra’s reign. Using historical data for all the inhabitants of earth, they could predict who would be a threat to their evil reign and eliminate them! Science fiction at its best.

Limitations of Data

Aside from having a suspenseful plot, the movie presents a challenge that is is very relevant for many data driven marketers. Could we figure out, with great accuracy, how to use historical data to predict the future? At this point I think we have a long way to go before we get close to seeing a picture of how that could work. The promise of having a model like this is the “holy grail” for marketers. Yet, the concepts behind this theory stretch far beyond data, into moral, ethical, and even existential beliefs. Data alone can only give you one small, sometimes insignificant dimension of history, when most individuals have thousands of data points that influence them every day. So what one data point lacks is the hundreds of other data points that influenced that data point, in an endless web of causality and correlation. Throw in the unrecorded emotional and social influences that play a huge factor in our purchase decisions, and it puts a scope to this undertaking that really does sound like science fiction.

Unlimited Potential of Humans

The second point that goes without comprehension in the film is the human potential. Zola’s algorithm can potentially see into the future based on past data. What it grossly misses is the greatest asset of human kind, which is our God-given potential for change.  There is no calculation that can explain human behavior – the quick responses, the sudden changes of mind, or the forces of nature that interact with our decisions. Humans are created with such a fine craftsmanship, our minds are truly amazing creations. So how do we expect to look at a few thousand data points and think we can tell if a customer is going to buy from us again with any real confidence? I think the answer is that we can’t.

Predictive analytics is a growing topic and many companies are searching to find a way to use “big data” in impactful ways. In our opinion, there is a limit to what it can tell you. It can inform you of the likelihood of next behaviors, but it will never tell you the future. It will never give you a sure bet. But it does not mean it’s not an exercise to learn and grow your business. Taking a good hard look at your data will be the best thing you can do for your company. Even if data doesn’t always tell the whole truth, true data certainly never lies. And neither does Captain America.