Alex Melen

Data has a cost. It has to be gathered, stored and analyzed. That means storage, apps and IT. For the digital marketer, data produces no revenue until it is activated, and even then, the payoff may not be immediate. 

Yet data is more valuable than gold. It can find customers, tease out their preferences, and convert those wants into sales. Data enables action. Marketing is impossible without it. 

The value proposition

“It’s partly the invisible hand out there,” said James Fedolfi, VP for Product Development at OMI, the B2B business intelligence platform. Data is a lens into the market, he said.“ Theoretically you are targeting prospects perfectly.” But it’s never perfect, he added. 

“Data comes in abundance in the digital world, which often leaves it overlooked,” said Alex Melen, co-CEO at SmartSites, a web design and digital marketing agency. “[W]ithout proper analysis and interpretation, data in itself isn’t worth much.”

For email platform SparkPost, email is “true to a person’s intent,” observed April Mullen, Director of Brand and Content Marketing. The marketer knows if the customer is engaging with the content, when they open the message or subscribe for updates. “Marketers take for granted the value of first-person data,” she said. 

This is partially due to the short life-spans of chief marketing officers, who have “18 to 36 months to prove value, or they are out,” Mullen said. So they look for easy KPIs. “They are addicted to the acquisition side of the ecosystem. You can spend money and acquire new customers.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the value of data into bright relief, as businesses had to go online overnight as a matter of dire necessity. “If you didn’t go online, you went out of business,” noted Niki Hall, CMO at Contentsquare, the digital experience analytics platform. Vendors and customers were no longer face-to-face. Data replaced the customers’ verbal and non-verbal cues. Data shows its value by enabling the marketer to understand why the customer is there at the web site and how they engage with it, what they want to achieve and where they get frustrated, Hall explained. “Without data, you are at a disadvantage.”

Right question? Right answer?

While data helps target the campaign, it cannot ask the right question, much less find the right answer, by itself. Marketers need to use data to bring a campaign into focus. “For me, the value proposition, first, is being in line with the goal,” Fedolfi said. 

OMI picks up 14 billion “signals” a week, which have to be separated from the noise through analysis. “Data helps in the pre-marketing prep,” Fedolfi said. User intent is revealed when users are searching for goods and services, he noted. Knowing this, one can push “information” to grow the mindshare of a potential customer. A marketer has to get there first to be effective.

So rather than starting the campaign by asking the right question, be prepared instead to learn from mistakes, but quickly. “You need to iterate,” Fedolfi said. “If something is not working, interpret and re-engage…Many [campaigns[ start with the wrong question.”

Melen altered the emphasis slightly: “I think ‘asking the right question’ is pretty much a shot in the dark,” he said. “The approach is to try, experiment and test everything. With the correct metrics in place, the correct data analysis, you will then zero-in on what will be most successful.” And even when analysis is spot-on, keep testing, Melen added.

“The good part is that you can see what works and what doesn’t,” Mullen added. A digital campaign can pivot quickly if the data shows a downward trend. Yet even if the trend line rises, “audiences are evolving,” Mullen noted. What worked today is not going to work forever. E-mail’s ability to engage is pretty close to one-to one, “so you can get a good read — and pivot.”

Numbers, letters and metrics

“I believe that a successful campaign starts first with the definition of your KPI and the metrics you’ll be tracking. Then, you set up the correct data collection in place, and specific intervals at which you will evaluate your ROI and make adjustments.” Melen said, “In the end, a campaign is successful if it hits it’s originally-set ROI metrics.”

“I don’t think the poor use of data is a prime suspect [for failure],” Hill said. “I expect to see some failure.” Data is used to lay out assertions, then prove or disprove them, in the marketing effort. “Without failure, I wonder if [the marketing team] is pushing themselves hard enough.”

Reviewing performance early and often is key, added Sparkpost’s Mullen. “Understand how the audience responds to the campaign.” That means taking stock of “signals” — opened e-mails, clicks, impressions. Gauge the direction of the signal. Each one is a “micro-conversion,” and these form a chain that can lead to a sale, Mullen pointed out. If there is a drop-off from one micro-conversion to the next, then re-examine that “break point” to see if the offer or the message is the issue. Modify from there.

Actions Have Consequences

Marketers have to bring their strategies to bear. There is more than one way to do that. 

“There is a lot of building out of data management internally,” Fedolfi noted. “The technical resource requirements [have to be] large scale to be competitive. It’s putting a lot of stress on IT departments.”

But those efforts are means to an end, as it allows a digital marketer to quickly move into a market space and quickly understand it, Fedolfi said. “That is the foundation of data.”

Mullen offered a different approach for marketers: have a data strategy. This is a tough one to pull off, as marketers are usually very busy executing the marketing strategy. But they should make that time, Mullen said. “All parties should come together to form the goals that will be helpful to develop the strategy that feeds into that goal.” 

For Hill, marketers must ensure they have the right kind of data. They should not be looking for “who”,  but “why”. Contentsquare did a study that found that 73 percent of all brands could not provide a consistent customer experience across all channels, while another 71 percent said they could not act on information in real time. Marketers should be “using data to understand the customer. This is the new digital competitive landscape.”

Finally, Melen offered a checklist:

  1. Proper success metrics must be defined;
  2. Data collection must be set up to be able to track the success metrics;
  3. Attribution models should be well defined and configured;
  4. The data should be analyzed on an on-going basis and decisions made at statistically-significant intervals;
  5. Reporting needs to be set up to help the client understand and fully digest the data; and
  6. Always continue to test and experiment: All decisions should be data-based (not based on gut-feel).

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