Putting Data Into A Larger Context

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, March 2, 2015

Experts estimate as much as 90% of all the data humanity has generated is less than two years old. We’re all too familiar with stats like this about the amount of data we’re generating, especially in marketing. Not only is the amount of data at our fingertips growing at an exponential rate, it's also coming from increasingly diverse sources. As analytics tools become integrated into more steps of the marketing process, we find ourselves neck-deep at the intersection of many disparate data feeds.

Conventional logic dictates that more information should make marketing easier. But anyone who’s been left scratching his or her head when looking at an overly crowded spreadsheet detailing every piece of a marketing campaign will tell you it isn’t quite that simple. On its own, more data does not result in better marketing. Data from different channels, different campaigns and different audiences needs to be structured into a larger context in order to provide more meaning. Here are a few thoughts on how to start categorizing and organizing your data for more actionable insight.



Visualizing Data. One way to categorize data for insight and action is to visualize your data earlier than usual. Many marketers think of data visualization as the last step — needed only for a final report. But how many times have you been left, at the end of a campaign, wishing there was one additional data point you would have collected, or would have collected differently? If we think of how the final outcome of our data looks (actually looks) from the start, there’s a much better chance that we’ll collect and aggregate the right data points for meaning. Visualizing the outcome of your data before you start really helps to put your data into a larger context.

Categorize Types of Metrics. Instead of obsessing over the hundreds of individual measurements, group as many of the most relevant types of data points together. Looking at groups of impression data, engagement activity data, or conversion data provides a larger context than simply looking at each individual channel or tactic. Take the time to define and map out groupings of data points that make the most sense for your business.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t — and won’t need to — do a deep-dive into a single data point. But for top-level insight, finding similar groupings of data will allow you to ladder individual metrics into more meaningful buckets. More often than not, the whole is greater (and more insightful) than the sum of its parts.

Trends and Ratios Over Numbers. Another way to put your data into a larger context is to recognize the importance of trends and ratios over numbers. Marketing metrics are typically raw numbers: usually something to the effect of “during X time period, this campaign delivered Y.” What does this actually mean though? That isolated number is essentially an orphan. Does this number indicate success? Should we be concerned? 

In order to extract better information from our data, we need to step away from metrics in a vacuum and focus on looking at change over time. Did the results change? Why did they change? How does this compare to our performance last week, last month or last year? Many times the result of this effort ends with percentage metrics. Percentage metrics give us a view of the data in more context. Incorporating trend data provides more context to identify trends and pivot marketing decisions accordingly.

Asking “So What?” Finally, repeatedly asking this important question pushes more meaning and context to your data. When looking at marketing data, continually ask “so what?” If there’s no immediate answer as to why the number, chart or percentage is there, then you may want to dig a little deeper for more context. For example, “our impressions are down this month in this channel.” So what? “So, we had the same amount of activity with less impressions.” So what? “So, our targeting is getting more efficient.” So what? “So, our cost per conversions is coming down.” Now we’re getting somewhere. Asking “so what” may seem like an easy and silly exercise, but it really helps to get into a mindset of putting out data into a larger context.

Keeping Data in Perspective. The waves and volumes of data are only going to increase. There’s obviously no perfect method for not drowning in our data, but in the most general terms, the overarching theme of putting data into a larger context is trying to keep our marketing data in perspective.  

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