Be a data connoisseur, not a glutton

With the rise of digital technologies comes an abundance of data. Tom Sheppard, head of SEO and data at Atomic 212, gives his solution to the information-overload problem and discusses how marketers should be using data.


tom sheppard headshot 180 bwI always hated that old marketing adage: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” It stank of laziness and created an image of marketing practitioners as witch doctors and water diviners.

Now it looks like the rise of digital and the increasing abundance of data in the marketing sphere are solving this problem. At last we can prove return on investment, we can track and optimise campaigns in real time, we can rationalise spend and show once and for all that marketing is more than a dark art.

And it’s all thanks to data.

Well, the truth is that data is only half the story. In fact, data is just the latest in a long list of buzzwords. We’ve always had access to information; it’s just that in recent years the technology and the tools have improved markedly.

Having said that, I could think of scores of companies that have fed on the buzz and jumped on the data bandwagon. They make it it their goal in life to store as much information as humanly possible. They collect consumer segmentation data, sales data, search data, ad serving data, Google Analytics data. Data. Data. Data.

And what do they do with it? Nothing, really. It sits there. Maybe it gets dragged out for the odd investor presentation. Maybe it’s used to justify what the company already knew. Now don’t get me wrong, some data is better than no data, and lots of data can be a major benefit if you know what to do with it.

But, in truth, a storage bank of information isn’t really helping the organisation. It may even be hindering the company, simply increasing the amount of noise, doing no more than turning marketing plans that should have been twenty pages into two-hundred-page behemoths that don’t say anything. Most of the data available to a company won’t have any impact on that company’s business results whatsoever.

No, the answer isn’t data. The solution lies in the insights we glean from carefully selected data points. This may seem like an incredibly obvious statement. But in our digital world, we have access to more information than we know what to do with. After a point it just becomes more hullabaloo. We spend so much time gathering information that we lose sight of why we’ve gathered it in the first place: the insights. It’s the insights, developed through human ingenuity, that lead to business results. The data makes up the raw ingredients, but the insights tell us how to write the recipe. And in the end, it’s that recipe, the strategy and the execution, which lead to results.

Google’s digital marketing evangelist Avinash Kaushik summed it up nicely when he said that great companies spend 65% of their time analyzing, rather than simply collecting, the data.

Of course, strong data management systems and state-of-the-art technology are essential, and can help companies make sense of the masses of information at their disposal, but you also need that resource a computer can never replace (not yet at least): the human brain. In fact, the great thing about all the new technology at our fingertips is that we can collate and make sense of information more efficiently than ever before. Automated reporting means we have more time to use our brains, to analyse, to glean trends, to create models and to test formulas. Most importantly, the smarter data players can transform these complex and tech-tastic insights into plain English ideas which answer the question every client has: What can I do to make my business better?

The key is making data actionable.

How is this possible? Modern data analysts should be very selective with the data they choose to employ. I’m not suggesting we should abandon complex models. Many brands require complex solutions to complex problems. I am, however, suggesting that every single data point must be justified. Otherwise it simply adds to the noise.

Take for instance some recent work my agency Atomic 212 did for a client. The brand had access to massive quantities of first party data, ad serving data and so on. Not less than a hundred entry points. We were tasked with increasing online conversions. In the end, our data geeks put their heads together, explored each of these points and managed to single out just three variables which significantly affected the client’s online conversions. These variables became the focus of our strategy and planning, the results went gangbusters, and we were able to very clearly indicate a return on investment for each conversion.

It sounds simple. In fact, when we explained it to the client it all came across as very easy: “Allocate your search media spend based on just three data points and watch the conversions soar.” But the truth is that we reached this result after careful data selection and analysis, which produced actionable insights that our client could take to the bank.

We have reached a point where data is ubiquitous. It’s data overload. And in this kind of environment, we need to be data connoisseurs, not gluttons.