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What’s it like to learn data-driven marketing? It’s a lot like learning to fish using a rod and reel.

The first time you tried it, you may recall, you had your bait set and were ready to start fishing, but your line took slack and snarled up in a tangled mess just above the reel. At that moment, you may have panicked – “It’s not supposed to work like this!” – and tried to untangle it yourself, feverishly fiddling with the twists in the unintelligible webbing of translucent line, making a bigger mess in the process.

Frustrated and confused, you cried out to your grandfather or grandmother, or mom or dad, or whomever was kind enough to share this “wonderful” experience with you. That wise angler calmly walked over, looked at the tangled mess, and smiled.

Then, in one motion, a knife came out of a pocket or tackle box. The line was quickly cut above the tangled mess, below the tangled mess, and the two clear segments were tied back together in a quick, strong knot. All that crazy confusion was gone. And, of course, once you were back in business, you discovered you had actually hooked a fish!

Beginnings Are Messy

Why this long, vivid memory connecting data-driven marketing to fishing? Because data-driven marketing always starts with a confusing, tangled-up mess. Whether we’re talking about your own internal data, external third party data, or data of unknown origin, it’s going to look confusing, complicated, and impossible to untangle if you focus on the mess of it all. When you focus on what is clear and what you can work with, however, solutions become as cut and dry as cut and tie.

Recent Aberdeen research on data-driven marketing shows that for 48% of marketers, data is still a tangled-up, unusable mess. That is, 48% of marketers aren’t able to collect the most basic data on their own marketing efforts via tracking and use that data to drive value through reporting. This 48% breaks down into: 6% who don’t even know where to start; 6% who aren’t able to track and report effectively; 25% who have trouble tracking, and skew what they report with opinion; and another 11% who track more than they can effectively act on.

How do you move beyond these tangled-up messes of marketing data to tactical, actionable marketing insights? Follow these simple steps:

1. Establish Data Literacy

Data literacy means being able to discern with accuracy and confidence (“I feel like this means…” statements are NOT allowed) what the data is indicating. When dealing with data, focus on these questions:

  • When was the data collected? Is it still relevant?
  • Where was it collected? Did it come from a reliable source?
  • How was it collected? Was the data itself compiled in a reliable manner?
  • What does it mean? Does the data offer any definite conclusions?
  • Why does it mean what it means? Is there more data to support your conclusion?

2. Define Data Utility

Data utility means knowing how your data is meant to be used and how you’ll gain value from that usage. For example, if you’re analyzing the performance of content assets intended to be sent by sales reps to marketing qualified leads (MQLs), you wouldn’t want to use data points on views and social sharing to determine the effectiveness of that content. Those data points would be worse than meaningless as they’re not related to the defined marketing objective.

Instead, you’d want to analyze data on how leads who received the sales content performed in the sales process. Because that’s the data tied to the business goal, it’s the appropriate data to use.

3. Experiment with Data

Testing and experimentation go hand-in-hand with data-driven marketing. Build on the value of your data by conducting controlled, manageable experiments to test your marketing hypotheses and evaluate tactical options. Collect basic data on what’s happening now, propose a testable way to drive improvement in that data set, test said item, rinse and repeat.

4. Expand into New Realms of Data

The worst thing you can do with data-driven marketing is to get in over your head before your ready. At the same time, the goal of data-driven marketing is to improve marketing performance in a measurable, predictable, and reliable way.

To get there, though, you have to start with data you already have a handle on. If that data is derived from your basic, internal marketing metrics, that’s where you start. Once you are comfortable working in that area, begin carefully expanding into other realms. Look at content consumption data to identify patterns, and once those patterns are understood, used them for lead scoring, and so on.

The point, though, is not to try to do it all at once. Master one area of data-driven marketing, then expand over time.

For more on data-driven marketing best practices, read Aberdeen’s free report, The Data on Data-Driven Marketing: Where Data & Analytics Make a Difference!

 Image Source (Creative Commons): jimsohn1.

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