Beyond Big, Bad Spreadsheets

Marketing Success Requires Transforming Data Into Actionable Insights Across All Disciplines

By Published on .

In reality, the proverbial ivory tower -- that isolated aerie once thought to be the birthplace of so much creativity -- is long gone, upended as it was by the knowledge that creativity, especially in advertising and marketing, requires much more than a muse.

This example of a graphic image from IBM's visualization practice illustrates the changed content of the Wikipedia entry "Islam" over time. The colors represent changes in the Wikipedia content. Conceivably, marketing executives could use the same visual logic to show the changes in a particular brand communication over time and view brand-message consistency.

Sad to say, parallel knowledge surrounding data has yet to create the same reality.

While everyone recognizes that data are the fuel in designing today's consumer-centric marketing experiences, data have yet to exit their own ivory tower and enter into C-level discussions. That process is the leading imperative facing marketers and all chief marketing officers today.

Democratization of data
Few question that data and analytics are key cornerstones of marketing. Fewer acknowledge that they work best when correctly married to strategy. The "democratization" of data -- transforming today's vast, ever-increasing volume of consumer data into actionable marketing insights across all marketing disciplines -- is the No. 1 challenge for digital-age marketers. And it is an elusive process that begins with a clarion call for bringing the data geeks out of their enshrouded backrooms of statistical algorithms into the spotlight of strategy and design.

In this era of seismic change in the marketing world, CMOs must ground their teams across their organizations-starting with senior leadership and on down-with data that are distilled and made easy to read, understand and leverage.

Yet this is not happening.

Data as change agent
Why? Three reasons: First, most marketers lack the basic understanding needed to read numbers and create data-driven implications. Second, most statistically driven marketers appear unwilling to translate their data findings into understandable insights. Finally, many CMOs and marketing managers still believe spreadsheets, rather than intuitive and graphically appealing visuals, are the natural environment of numbers.

Yet creating data intelligence and distributing its actionable insights to all marketing constituents -- "democratizing" data -- can integrate customer intelligence across marketing teams and result in ROI-driven programs that do not sacrifice creativity for impact. The effort involves correct usage of technology and the internet, dimensionalized by relevant, interactive visual applications and advanced by understanding the beauty of the data.

Not only individuals but data, used wisely, can act as change agents to transform whole organizations into really customer-centric enterprises. Data can function as the connecting glue across different departments to focus on the right consumer segments and apply the most successful channels. Done right, data democratization reduces the risks of marketing investments because its usage guarantees that the derived marketing programs are closer to both targets and underlying purchase motivations.

Two examples from outside the world of marketing illustrate the insight and impact made possible by data intelligence.

Color coding connections
The first, developed by Ben Fry, one of today's smartest data thinkers, and accessible at, shows the connections among the top 50 blogs, based on data provided by Technorati. As the impact of blogs grows in importance to marketers, a CMO can use approaches like this one to understand the importance of and connections between the most relevant blogs. Colors depict categories: orange for technology, blue for politics, pink for gossip and green for "other." The intensity of a line is based on the direction of a link, so lines are brightest at link destinations. A CMO can see the topical connections among blogs and can identify the most important blogs with which to associate their brands.

The second example, above, comes from researcher Fernanda Viegas in IBM's visualization practice. It illustrates the changed content of the Wikipedia entry "Islam" over time. The colors represent changes in the content. Marketers could use the same visual logic to show changes in a particular brand communication over time and monitor brand-message consistency.

CMOs could immediately understand the development of their brand communications over time and potentially decipher a lack of persistent message focus.

CMO's role
As data democratization plays an ever more critical role in integrated marketing programs, there are certain key steps CMOs can take to create data-driven marketing intelligence across their organizations.

First, they can become champions of data. Emphasize data's role and advocate their democratization across your organization.

Next, embrace the geeks and give them a partner. A marketing analyst alone can never derive actionable insight. It needs to be infused and guided by a marketing strategist.

Another important step? Kill visually confusing and nonintuitive usage of spreadsheets.

Focus on relevance. It's never about the volume of analyzed data or the complexity of an algorithm but about the actionability of derived insight.
Finally, pursue new visualizations. CMOs using data need to continuously create interesting visuals to explain data-derived insights and not get stuck with the anti-inspirational nature of spreadsheets.

CMOs can begin the process not by hiring another analyst but instead by bringing onboard a "data visualizer/designer." They can refuse to look at any spreadsheets and instead ask for -- or better yet, demand -- relevant insights. And they can opt out of listening to any sentence that starts with "I believe that ..."

The job of CMOs and marketers around the globe goes beyond Google's mission to organize the world's data and make them universally accessible and useful. The CMO's job is to create data-driven marketing intelligence and proliferate it across his or her organization. In today's world, that job requires democratized data, the digital-age philosophy and tool that, if used correctly and continuously, provides a powerful competitive advantage.
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