The real problem with data is marketers don’t know how (or when) to use it

In a recent TrinityP3 post, Darren wrote about the growing problem marketers appear to be having with data, posing the hypothesis that the problem with data (and its effective use in marketing) is due to the fact many marketers misuse it in its application. 

At the end of the post Darren asks what is stopping marketers from coexisting with and embracing data and analytics in their roles and questions whether this lack of data trust stems from a lack of understanding.

It’s a great question and I absolutely agree, however I also feel that a huge contributor to the ineffective use of data boils down to the many marketers who don’t know how and when to use it.

Data, data everywhere but not a clue on how to use it

Earlier this year, TrinityP3 published its annual marketing predictions for the year ahead and, on this list, I predicted that there would be an increase in importance placed on the need for skilled marketing analysts to form a crucial part of any marketing team that wants to get ahead.

This marketing analyst will be someone who can confidently sift through the plethora of marketing analytics we have available to us today and identify not only which information is important and usable, but also what isn’t.

This prediction has a touch of wishful thinking added to it because too often during my career, I have worked with and within marketing teams where more than a few members of the team didn’t know how to use data beyond a superficial glance of identifying an increase in sales or post likes.

This is concerning, quite simply because data has always been and will increasingly continue to be the lifeblood of a marketing team.

So why don’t more marketers know how to use data effectively?

A lack of training.

In my 20 plus year career in marketing I have never been offered practical training in how to read, interpret or, more importantly, discard data. Ever. I taught myself by watching how other people presented data, constantly asking questions and taking the time to sit down with the skilled analysts I was at times lucky enough to call colleagues.

Marketers who are not trained in how to use data are often the same marketers who will kill their audience with 90 PowerPoint slides of charts and graphs showing sales increases and shifts in the age of their target audience, without articulating what it means for the business.

As a result, management will start to question and discredit the information (and stop inviting you to the meetings) and the marketer, sans feedback and training, will continue to interpret data the same way, confident in the knowledge their sales are up 5% without properly understanding the rest of the market increased by 15% so in reality, they are not doing too great.

A simplistic demonstration, but you get the point.

Effective use of and interpretation of data is not about scrutinising the nitty-gritty and focusing on every, single piece of information available, it’s about learning how to read between the data lines, cross referencing against other data and looking for any gaps to make sure the information being delivered to the business will demonstrate real impact.

The ability to do this only comes with training, practice, expertise and by making mistakes.

In his article published in Marketing Magazine and referenced by Darren marketing analytics and the scepticism that still hinders its universal adoption Professor Lilien hits the nail on the head regarding the problems this causes with his observation that the key to effective deployment of marketing analytics is top management advocacy.

However, to be able to successfully build this advocacy, build trust in the data and get management over any ‘mental inertia’ when it comes to marketing insights, is not only the responsibility of marketing to know how to access, assess and interpret data properly it is also the responsibility of management to ensure the marketing team is given the proper training to do so.

A lack of confidence

Confidence comes from understanding and trusting your ability to deliver most the time, and just like not all cricketers can bowl, not all marketers are analytical. Number crunching and trend spotting is just not how some brains are wired and undertaking any form of analysis can literally cause paralysis.

Unfortunately, not all marketers will admit to this, they see this skills gap as a weakness so they will cover it up by doing the best they can under the circumstances. However, in this fast-evolving marketing landscape, this attitude just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Marketing teams need to have the skills to be able to access the right data, identify and prioritise the insights and importantly read between the data lines. As Nathan Hodges pointed out in his post The secret death of the marketing generalist, marketing is evolving at such a rapid pace across channel, technology and consumer it is impossible for a marketer to be good at everything, but it is possible for a marketer to recognise what they are not good at and recruit others to fill the gaps.

It is also the responsibility of these marketers to learn enough about analytics to understand what they are hearing from others and be able to look at data with a wide-angle lens and ask; what sits just outside this data, is there another set of data that will compliment what you are looking at, or better still challenge it?

A lack of access

Not too long ago I was working with a very large Australian corporation. At the core of their business was data – sales, subscription, apps, social media, digital, market and trade research just to give you the top line gamut of data the marketing teams were swimming in daily.

On face value, it would be safe to think that because of the volume and importance of this data on critical decisions that every marketer in the business could ‘talk to the numbers’. Sadly, you would be wrong. You see not everyone was allowed access to the data.

Management protocol directed that only those in certain positions within the sales and marketing departments could receive it and it was to be discussed discreetly with others in the business team at a similar level or with similar ‘intelligence clearing’.

The result; junior team members were not given the opportunity to learn, through participation, the importance of this information on a day to day basis. Why some information shaped one action and other information guided another.

In my opinion it was a ridiculous mandate that screamed ‘we don’t trust you’ and created a high proportion of marketing team members who were only there to implement and not think.

For a marketing team to be effective, not only do they need to understand what drives the business and their role in it, the whole team also need to understand how the data generated by the business can be used to inform them if they are achieving the result or not.

What’s the solution?

How do we get marketers to better understand, trust and use the data being generated by our consumers and marketing activities?

Straight off the bat I would encourage management to audit their marketing teams to identify if and where the data gap is sitting within their marketing function and then I would work out how to close that gap.  

Either by restructuring to recruit a marketing analyst to support the team or investing in the necessary training that will empower the marketers in the business to identify, assess, trust and question the data currently at their fingertips.

Both solutions will go a long way in elevating the respect toward marketing in your business and the confidence of the marketers to use the data to make informed and effective decisions.

Are you struggling with the complexity that digital and data offer to business? Let TrinityP3 make sense of the new digital ecosystem for you.