Turning data into insights: Hero or zero?


As we all would agree, data is very important—arguably the most important factor for ongoing organizational success. From marketing to product development to generating efficiencies in operations, you need good data to make good decisions on where and how you spend your time (and budget).

The key is taking the next step to turn your customer data into tangible insights, and then using those insights to connect with consumers in a meaningful way. But easier said than done, right?

How can a large organization continually generate more types of data yet stay aligned on how it’s interpreted and used to impact your business? Even the most successful companies struggle with this issue on a daily basis.

The importance of customer data

Insights drawn without data are subjective at best. Many managers (wisely) are not prone to take on new risk without understanding the data supporting their decision. And where multiple stakeholders are prevalent, you often need multi-dimensional data to gain alignment on new initiatives in the organization. Simply put, in most companies, nothing happens without useful data.

Of course everyone already has data, right? But is it solid, reliable data? Is it clean enough and deep enough to provide an accurate view of your audience based on whatever you are trying to accomplish? Do all the decision makers fully understand the data in a common way?

Data that is too general or contains inaccuracies will skew any findings. It’s not legitimately actionable and may not actually be usable to influence your presumptions about the market. Using poor data to infer assumptions can waste the time and energy of your staff and doesn’t fully utilize your heavily-invested marketing capabilities that require good data to operate.

So how might you properly analyze all of this data and still do your day job?

It’s challenging; we agree. There’s so much to look at and so little time to really sit and wrap your head around the output. Many organizations try to outsource data to internal or vendor analytic teams. Others end up suffering from “analysis paralysis,” which is basically putting so much focus on the data behind every decision that you can’t gain consensus because no one trusts the micro insights bubbling up. But until the decision-makers have a plan in place to manage and use data to make decisions, you’re leaving a lot of good quality information out of the equation.

Therefore, just collecting data won’t help you make decisions; you need to figure out how to find insights from your data, how to share them with your stakeholders and how to plan for the new insights inevitably conceived as the result of these transformational actions. Pretty cool stuff actually!

How to find insights

In order to form data into a useful insight, you can’t just be listening to the white noise and hoping for a hit. This isn’t the SETI project after all. You need to have a very clear and tangible goal you’re trying to accomplish. No, this does not mean “increase ROI by XX%” or “sell more stuff.” This type of goal is built around making a desired connection with whom you are marketing or selling to.

In this case, your audience is almost always another human being (or group of them). Being able to turn a human hypothesis into measurable numbers and then convert that back into human actions is the basic premise here, and I swear it’s not witchcraft or alchemy. But with data, it’s that last step of turning metrics into insights where so much of the magic is lost.

Effective data usage incorporates a clear focus around a relevant, tangible goal that feeds into shared KPIs and overall company goals. These goals are most effective when related to benefiting their customers, not just improving internal metrics. To repeat—tangible goals, shared KPIs and goals related to customers. Spending energy up front to get this alignment saves so much time on the back end once you’re up and running.

And there are so many data metrics you can be looking at. While all of it is somewhat interesting, you need to have an understanding about what data is most crucial in helping you achieve your objective. You can’t belabor all of it or you’ll get lost trying to coordinate your plan of action. So make sure you understand the key metrics and stay focused on the crucial criteria that will drive your success.

Once you get into the data, you’ll quickly realize that it’s overwhelming to try to do too much at once. This is why we recommend first determining your objectives/goals and what data will help you find answers to those goals. Then go to the data to look for the specific data points you need. This will slice your data sets down into more manageable chunks, meaning you have the chance to intimately understand what’s happening, how that relates to your goal and perhaps identify some unexpected trends or insights.

3 tips for adopting an “insights, not data” mentality

  1. Use both sides of your brain: While data leads to good insights, it can also lead to some obscurely interpreted findings if not verified by actual human beings. Determine ahead-of-time how you’ll incorporate both qualitative and quantitative views, and how you’ll verify the data and insights.
  2. Embrace change: Not always popular with the risk-averse crowd, but we all need to understand that the point of having data is so that you can actually use it for the greater good. It’s important to keep testing key factors in your program regularly to make sure you stay ahead of the curve. Products mature, audiences grow and shift and decline. What works one month might not work so great over time. Part of this also includes staffing and resources; as things change, you need to be prepared to pivot and adjust your processes.
  3. Create a repeatable process: Finding insights in data is a lifestyle, not just an activity. Just like going to the gym, if you have good customer and data insight discipline, it will get easier over time. The initial effort can be daunting but you should see some fast results. And then you’ll need to put effort into it if you want to continue to grow your savviness as a program.

Successful use of data is paramount to your ability to impact your goals in a positive way.

Think thoughtfully about how your data is being used to make a meaningful contribution to your audience and customers. Be confident in your plan. Be prepared to make changes. Set aside the proper time and staffing to improve your data discipline.