It seems counter-intuitive, but not everyone wants to be "the best" at something.
I know, right!
Who wouldn't want to be the best? Who wouldn't want to be the top salesman, or the number-one retailer, or the top athlete on the top team of the [insert sports league here]?
But it's true. When it comes to business, some companies are ok aiming squarely at the middle. It's safe. It's secure. It's somewhat reliable. There's no risk.
There's also no growth.
One of the dangers of the current data-driven marketing mindset is that focusing on the "data story" is a sure way to lodge yourself in the dead middle of your industry. And guess where the most competition tends to hang out? There's a lot less competition at the top (and the bottom).
There's this idea of a "data story"
Data is invaluable as an indicator of what's working and what isn't, but that's not really a "story." A story has a beginning, middle, and end. Data-driven marketing is just a beginning. It's the past. It's what happened, not what's happening.
Testing and refining your efforts will definitely help you improve your results, but what happens when you reach a plateau? At some point, once you've optimized everything so that you can repeat results over and again, you end up becoming stagnant. Growth stops. You become mediocre, and "safe" is the only thing that matters any more.
Except shareholders and board members don't like static and stagnant companies. They want growth, and they want it to be a nice constant. Growth comes from change, from taking risks, from stepping away from "what works" and dipping into the waters of "we've never tried this before."
In the gaming world, there's a concept known as "optimization boredom." In some games, like online roleplaying (think "World of Warcraft"), players will eventually optimize their characters and their gameplay so that performing game actions is nearly (sometimes literally) automatic. All that fumbling around, trying to make things work, trying to remember what tab your spells or your weapons are on—that goes away. And after a series of trial and error, you've refined things to the point where everything you need is readily and easily available, and using it becomes a function of habit. This is where it stops being a game, and you stop being a player. Now you're just a cog in a machine that has no real point. And it's boring.
This is how many businesses work today. They play the game well enough to start, but then the focus becomes automation and testing. And these are good things. Repeatable, reliable results = GOOD THINGS. But after a time, the marketing effort gets bored and flat and unwilling to branch out. There's a system. Trust the system. Believe in the system. Never deviate from the system.
Every now and then you need to throw out the system and try something new. Send a random email that has no CTA ("We just wanted to say 'hi.'"). Create a Twitter account that tweets from the perspective of a potted plant on someone's office desk. Create T-shirts with the company's name purposefully misspelled, scratched through, and corrected with a Sharpie. These ideas are stupid. But they're also fresh and new, and might get your business the attention it needs from the right audience at the right time.
You should definitely track and use data. You should definitely test, refine, and re-test every aspect of your marketing program. But you should also throw those numbers out every now and then and try something insanely stupid. Aiming for the middle is no way for a business to behave.