[Deep Dive] Should Marketers Rely on Intuition?


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Key Takeaways

  • Intuition is a cognitive process that draws on our past experiences and subconscious memories to produce a quick conclusion without conscious reasoning or analysis. It’s automatic and nondeliberative, but not necessarily irrational.
  • Marketers need intuition. They will often be required to make decisions based on intuition, either because of decision time constraints or because the available evidence is inconclusive.
  • Psychologists differ about whether intuition is a reliable basis for making decisions. The best answer we currently have for this question is:  “Sometimes, but not always.”
  • To use their intuition effectively, marketers need to respect it and take it seriously, but not trust it unconditionally.

Data Rules! Or Does It?

Today’s marketers have access to an immense amount of data about customers, potential buyers, and the performance of marketing programs. And astute marketers have recognized that this vast sea of data can be a rich source of insights for improving marketing decisions and enhancing marketing performance.

The benefits of using data and analytics to support marketing decisions have been touted so loudly and persistently over the past several years that “data-driven marketing” has become virtually synonymous with proficient marketing.

Belief in the superiority of data-driven marketing is so powerful that some marketers now question the legitimacy of using intuition to make marketing decisions. And the growing use of artificial intelligence will likely diminish the role of intuition in marketing even further.

Marketers’ skepticism of intuition is easy to understand because an air of mystery surrounds it. Intuition is sometimes described as “knowing something without knowing why or how you know it.”

Under these circumstances, some marketers are uncomfortable relying on intuition to make important decisions, and the thought of telling their boss they want to do something “because it feels like the right thing to do” makes them especially nervous.

But notwithstanding the enthusiasm for data-driven marketing, recent research shows that the actual use of data analytics in marketing isn’t as pervasive as might be expected.

For example, in the September 2022 edition of “The CMO Survey,” senior marketers said their company uses marketing analytics before a decision is made in 48.9% (average) of projects. This means that analytics is not used to support over half of all marketing decisions.

Earlier research by Gartner produced a similar finding. In Gartner’s “Marketing Data and Analytics Survey 2020,” respondents reported that analytics influenced only 54% (average) of marketing decisions.

While these studies didn’t directly address the use of intuition by marketers, the clear implication is that intuitive decision-making is still playing a major role in marketing.

What Is Intuition?

Psychologists generally describe intuition as a mental process that draws on our past experiences and subconscious memories to produce a quick conclusion without conscious reasoning or analysis.

Many of us tend to equate intuition with instinct or emotion, but psychologists usually distinguish between these phenomena based on their underlying characteristics and operating mechanisms.

Instincts are innate biologically determined behaviors that are present in all members of a given species. Unlike intuition, instincts are genetically programmed and don’t depend on prior experiences or learning.

Emotions are complex psychological states that involve subjective experiences of feelings, physiological changes, and behavioral responses. Unlike instincts and intuition, emotions aren’t necessarily innate or automatic, and they can be triggered or influenced by a wide range of factors, including culture, personal experience, and cognitive appraisal.

The important point here is that intuition is subconscious and nondeliberative, but not necessarily irrational. As Albert Einstein put it:  “. . . intuition is nothing more but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience.

Our intuitions arise out of what we have experienced or learned in the past even though we may not consciously remember experiencing or learning those things. The flash of insight we call intuition results when our brain draws on stored memories and associates them with a new situation.

Why Marketers Need Intuition

Whether they like it or not, most marketers will be required to make intuitive decisions several times during their careers. The need to base decisions on intuition can arise for several reasons, but two occur frequently.

No Time – We’ve all been there. A decision needs to be made quickly, little or no data relevant to the decision is immediately available, and there isn’t enough time to collect relevant data. In these circumstances, marketers have no choice but to base their decision – at least in part – on intuition.

Ambiguous Data – Even when marketers have an abundance of relevant data, the right decision isn’t always obvious. Some data may indicate that one option is best, while other data points in a different direction. In the Gartner research mentioned earlier, survey participants were asked why they don’t use data and analytics to support decisions more often. One of the top four reasons given by respondents was analysis does not present a clear recommendation.

Beyond these specific situations, there is another reason marketers still need to use intuition when faced with important decisions. As I noted earlier, marketers have access to a vast amount of data, but the data doesn’t provide a comprehensive picture of the wants, needs, and mindsets of customers or potential buyers.

Like all humans, marketers have a tendency to base their decisions on the evidence that’s easily available and ignore the issue of what evidence may be missing. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman (more about him below) has a great way to describe this tendency. He uses the acronym WYSIATI, which stands for what you see is all there is. The point here is that it’s easy for marketers to think the data they can track, collect, and analyze is all that matters, and that simply isn’t true.

Intuition can be a powerful antidote for WYSIATI. When faced with an important decision, intuition is what prompts us to look beyond the evidence that’s in front of us. Even when the data and other evidence relating to a decision seem to be clear and convincing, our intuition will often trigger our “spidey sense” that tells us “something isn’t quite right” or “we’re missing something important.”

Is Intuition Reliable for Decision Making?

Psychologists and other cognitive scientists have been studying intuition for decades, and one major focus of their research has been whether human intuition is a reliable basis for making decisions.

Not surprisingly, scientists differ in how much confidence they place in the reliability of intuition. The best answer we currently have for this question is:  “Sometimes, but not always.”

The diversity of opinion among scientists about the reliability of intuition can be seen in the views of two highly-regarded psychologists – Daniel Kahneman and Gerd Gigerenzer.

Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002, and his groundbreaking research with fellow psychologist Amos Tversky laid the foundation for the discipline we now call behavioral economics. Kahneman believes that intuitive thinking is quite useful and mostly yields adequate decisions, but he also argues that it is subject to judgment errors that can result in bad decisions.

In his 2011 best-selling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman proposed that the cognitive processes people use can be thought of as two “systems.”

  • System 1 (fast/intuitive thinking) operates automatically, quickly, with little or no effort, and with no sense of voluntary control.
  • System 2 (slow thinking) consists of thinking processes that are reflective, controlled, deliberative, and analytical.

Kahneman contends that System 1 (intuitive thinking) relies extensively on mental shortcuts known as heuristics. These heuristics are useful in our everyday lives. They enable us to cope with the immense amount of information we encounter on a daily basis, and they usually result in sound decisions. But, they can also produce predictable judgment errors or biases.

A bias exists when a factor that should not affect a decision or judgment does have an effect on it, or when a factor that should affect a decision or judgment does not.

The work of Kahneman and Tversky in the 1970s triggered a flurry of research on heuristics and biases. To date, researchers have identified more than 150 cognitive biases that can affect human judgment and decision-making. While some of these biases are probably redundant, there are still many that can cause us to make suboptimal decisions.

Gerd Gigerenzer

Gerd Gigerenzer, a psychologist and the Director of the Harding Center for Risk Literacy at the University of Potsdam, has a more favorable view of intuition and heuristics than Daniel Kahneman. He believes the value of intuition and heuristics has been underappreciated – particularly in academia – and that they will frequently support effective decision-making.

Gigerenzer views intuition as a form of unconscious intelligence that is often based on the use of heuristics. He recently wrote:  “An intuition, or gut feeling, is a judgment based on years of experience for which one is not fully aware of the underlying reasons; that is, one cannot explain why it [the judgment] was made. In many cases, intuition can be equated with the unconscious use of heuristics.

Gigerenzer argues that heuristics are particularly well suited for judgments or decisions that must be made in situations subject to uncertainty. A purely logical, probabilistic approach to decision-making can work well when the decision-maker has perfect knowledge of all the possible outcomes of a decision and the probabilities of each possible outcome. But logic and probability analysis won’t identify the right decision when uncertainty is present.

Heuristics, Gigerenzer says, are better decision-making tools in uncertain environments. He writes:  “It [a heuristic] ignores information to make decisions faster, more frugally, and/or more accurately than complex procedures . . . Studies of experts show that an option that intuitively comes to mind first is likely the best, and further deliberation tends to generate inferior options . . .

The Bottom Line

Earlier I wrote that the best answer we have for the question of whether intuition is a reliable basis for making decisions is:  “Sometimes, but not always.” The work of both Daniel Kahneman and Gerd Gigerenzer supports this conclusion.

Although Kahneman and Gigerenzer differ in how much confidence they have in the reliability of intuition, they both acknowledge that reliance on intuition will result in good decisions in some cases . . . and not-so-good decisions in others.

Under these circumstances, the critical question is:  How can marketers tap into the undeniable benefits of intuitive thinking, while also minimizing its risks?

There are no magic solutions here, but I’ve found that a two-step approach works best.

  • First, respect your intuition, take it seriously, and recognize that intuitive thinking can produce game-changing ideas and solutions that purely analytical thinking would probably miss.
  • Second, don’t trust your intuition unconditionally. Whenever possible, look for data or other evidence to validate what your intuition is telling you to do. When you’re testing your intuitive ideas, be sure to avoid confirmation bias. Look for evidence that supports your intuitive judgment and evidence that reveals its flaws.

Perhaps the best description of the proper role of intuition is captured in a quotation from Jonas Salk, the doctor and medical researcher who developed the polio vaccine. Salk said, “Intuition will tell the thinking mind where to look next.” That’s not a bad way for marketers to think about how to use intuition in their decision-making.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

David Dodd
David Dodd is a B2B business and marketing strategist, author, and marketing content developer. He works with companies to develop and implement marketing strategies and programs that use compelling content to convert prospects into buyers.


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