Why, even in the big data age, we’re less data-driven than ever

Data, these days, is everywhere.

With a click of a button (OK, OK, probably several clicks), you can access data on pretty much anything – from your own marketing campaigns to any subject about which you might want to know more.

You’d think that all this data has made the world – and marketers specifically – more “data-driven”.

You’d be wrong.

The surfeit of data available to us has, conversely, made us less data-driven than ever before.

But here’s the good news: With a few tweaks to your strategy, you can begin putting data to work for you.

Why data matters

Big data. Data-driven. Data-informed.

The buzzwords are so universal these days that the meaning behind them frequently gets obscured.

But the fact is undeniable: data can help your organization perform better.

Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, in a 2012 feature for the Harvard Business Review, found that “companies in the top third of their industry in the use of data-driven decision making were, on average, five per cent more productive and six per cent more profitable than their competitors”.

So, what is data exactly?

“Not every statement or sentence counts as data,” writes data-driven blogger Neil Patel.

Instead, he defines data as “factual information generated from experiments, surveys or testing that is used as a basis for forming conclusions.”

In marketing this means measuring the results of what you and others have done to learn more about your audience – who they are, what they want, and what the best way is to reach them.

In short, data matters because it tells you more about your audience. And, as marketers, we should all know that’s the most important component of our job.

That should tell you all you need to know.

Why we aren’t data-driven

Data used to be difficult to come by.

For marketers, trying to track which tactics truly spurred audiences to action was difficult. An ad would go in a newspaper one quarter, then sales would suddenly spike (or not) in the next.

Guesswork and estimation were the order of the day – not reliability and precision.

These days, we struggle with the opposite problem: Too much data.

Numbers have now become so ubiquitous that we frequently mistake being “data-driven” for “looking at data”.

We compile endless reams of data points, dump them into a document and then call it a day.

The problem?

This isn’t at all what being “data-driven” means.

In fact, it’s the opposite.

Being data-driven means using the most important data points to drive performance. You can’t do that when you are constantly tracking everything under the sun.

What prevents us from being data-driven

A few things.

We use data to confirm our pre-existing opinions

One of the big benefits of being data-driven is objectivity. Data is supposed to help remove our pre-existing biases and strip away our subjectivity so that we can make decisions based on fact, not feeling.

In reality? The opposite frequently becomes true.

Many marketers look at data to confirm whatever it is they believed before. Then, if any data conflicts with that pre-conceived opinion, it’s disregarded.

It might make us feel better about the decisions we’ve already reached. But it’s not a great way to arrive at a course of action that will help us.

We don’t take the time to understand data

Bounce rate. Assisted conversions. Metrics and dimensions.

There’s no doubt that looking at data is complicated and requires a learning curve. After all, we can’t all be data scientists.

But too frequently it becomes an excuse for failing to measure what will actually make an impact.

Instead we lean back on metrics that are simple to understand but have next to no impact on what we are trying to measure.

We don’t use data to measure what really matters

One of the big obstacles to becoming data-driven these days is the sheer volume of data available to us. We think that because we have access to endless reams of data points we need to include (next to) all of them in our measurement.

Let’s say you’re running a campaign aimed at selling tickets for a webinar. For many marketers, the inclination would be to surround ourselves with peripheral metrics that, while nice, bear next to no impact on the overall goal: selling tickets.

The best data-driven marketers don’t let themselves – and their colleagues – drown in a sea of numbers.

They focus in just on the most important metrics.

We think it will hinder our creativity

There’s something about data that makes it seem hostile to our creativity.

We like to think that “being creative” stems from our independence, that our creative output is borne out of unique experiences.

This is no doubt true.

But it also obscures the fact that creativity does not, in fact, happen in isolation. It’s the product of thousands upon thousands “data points” we unconsciously collect throughout the course of our lives.

Then, somewhere along the line, something clicks and – boom – we offer creative output.

What sets “data-driven” creatives apart is that they rely on actual, verified, independent data rather than their own biases.

OK, so what does data-driven actually mean?

Being data-driven starts with deciding what matters.

What is it you are trying to accomplish?

Or, as Jim Cain of Napkyn Analytics put it at a recent talk in Ottawa, how do you get paid?

Consider the goal all of us, at one time or another, have probably considered: Losing weight.

Rarely is the point of such programs peripheral activities such as “jogging a few kilometres” or “eating a little less”. These are important activities for achieving our ultimate goal, sure, but they aren’t the point. Which is why we, rightly, consider them as a means to the ultimate end.

When it comes time to measure your progress on losing weight, we consider only one metric: What pops up on the scale when we step on it. Once we hit that metric, it doesn’t matter how many sticks of broccoli we ate or how many burpees we completed.

In weight loss as in marketing, key performance indicators are more than just a means of measuring our progress toward a goal.

It is the goal.

How we can all be more data-driven

Being “data-driven” isn’t a mysterious, unachievable state. It’s something we can all reach.

Here’s how.

Quantify your goals

This is the single most important element of a data-driven marketing strategy.

Too frequently, we don’t attach a SMART goal to our strategies.

The result? We end up with nebulous, unachievable goals which no one is ever sure if they achieved.

Quantifying your goals takes the mystery out of what you’re trying to achieve. It helps drive you toward a singular purpose.

Best of all? It leaves you – and your team – in no doubt about whether you’ve succeeded or not.

Share your goals with your team

Many teams still have an aversion to sharing their goals organization-wide. Or, if they do, they rarely check in with the rest of their team on how the organization is collectively progressing toward those goals.

It’s an attitude that makes next to no sense.

Sharing your goals helps to:

  • Get everyone pulling in the same direction: Nothing galvanizes a team like working toward a shared goal. By sharing your goals organization-wide you can unite the disparate departments, management tiers and employees towards a common purpose – something that is frequently lacking otherwise.
  • Free up employees to focus on the best means of achieving results: Micromanagement is like a cancer to fostering initiative in your organization. Data management techniques like KPIs and OKRs are a great way of communicating your goals to your team without stipulating how to get there.
  • Helps your employees become more invested in your goals: Who doesn’t want employees to become more engaged in the workplace? Sharing your goals helps to foster a culture of engagement that’s difficult to replicate in other ways.

But setting these goals is only half the battle. The other half? Measuring them.

These days, quarterly or even monthly is too long a time to go without checking in on your progress against key goals.

Checking in on performance should be a daily endeavor.

As Napkyn Analytics’ Cain put it: if you put the numbers into your day, your day will be about the numbers.

Measure what’s most important

This is the number one factor in whether an organization will succeed in being “data-driven” or not.

Those who are measuring everything are actually measuring nothing.

That’s why you need to develop metrics that get to the bottom of whether you were successful or not.

If your goal is to make money, measure profit.

If your goal is to get people to attend a conference, measure attendees.

If your goal is to make people aware of your issue, measure impressions.

Don’t get bogged down in inconsequential numbers. It doesn’t need to be any more complicated than you make it.

Bringing it all together

Data is an irreplaceable tool for 21stcentury marketers.

But we should never mistake “looking at data” for being “data-driven”.

By focusing in on the data points that really matter we can build a better team, drive performance and more effectively reach our audiences.

Mark Brownlee is a digital marketing strategist at Banfield.

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