Ringing birds and data dashboards

Posted on by Guy Cookson

A taxidermied stork with a spear through its neck from the University of Rostock Zoological Collection

For many years people in the northern hemisphere had no idea what happened to all the birds in the winter.

There were theories, of course. Some thought they hibernated in mudflats. Others believed that they transformed into fish. In 1703 a pamphlet claimed to have the answer – storks, turtle doves and swallows flew to the moon, it confidently stated.

And then in the spring of 1822 a hunter in Germany shot a white stork and found to his surprise the bird had survived a prior attempt to take its life. Stuck through its neck was a spear, which was identified by a nearby university as being of African origin.

But it was not until 1899 that the mystery was finally solved. Dutch teacher Hans Mortensen built nest boxes with an automatic closing mechanism, and then wrapped an aluminium ring around each captured bird’s leg inscribed with instructions to contact him if found. The practice spread, and soon patterns of migration were much better understood.

I was reminded of this while speaking with a business owner recently. His business was growing, which was great, but he was not sure which activities were responsible. Was it the social media posts or the PR? The ad on the radio or the leaflet drop? The new website or plain old word of mouth?

Back in the late 19th Century the department store owner John Wanamaker had a similar problem when he famously stated, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

These days it is much easier to see where customers come from. Every digital campaign can be tracked. Unique phone numbers can be used in print and broadcast ads. Custom coupon codes can help identify the most effective channels. We create dashboards of data to help our clients measure the effectiveness of every pound they spend on marketing.

But in truth there is no magic bullet – or spear – because people rarely make purchase decisions in a straightforward way. The science of recording when that happens is interesting, but the real fascination, to me at least, is why.

This article originally appeared in the Lancaster Guardian, Lancashire Post and other Johnston Press titles where I write a weekly column.

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