For the vast majority of my clients, data has an image problem. That problem may stem from a hangover from high school math class or the jargon of data-speak that comes across as a foreign language. Whatever the reason, data is not as profound or mysterious as it may appear. The irony is you don’t need to dive deep to yield valuable data. Most of what you are seeking can be found at the surface level.
Then why are people so intimidated by data? It starts with confusion about the distinction between math and analytics.
Math is robotic. Analytics is interpretive. The first is concerned with rules-based absolutes: one plus one will always equal two. The other discerns the meaning of numbers. There’s a big difference. Yet this basic misunderstanding trips up many people too scared to ask questions for fear they will expose their apparent ignorance.
That fear is unfounded. Your partnering agency is not interested in a “gotcha” moment. Once we get past the idea that it’s necessary to go 15 layers deep for data to be useful, we understand that the spikes and troughs of a graph can actually be taken at face value.
To See Data, Listen With Your Eyes
Nobody just looks at numbers and, like a code-cracker, suddenly knows everything. When I look at a metric and see peaks and valleys, I ask what they represent. What is this peak telling me? What is this valley saying? Think of it as a scavenger hunt: You know what you’re looking for, the data is there to be found, and it is often hidden in plain sight.
If listening to the data rather than reading the analytics sounds strange, it’s because it calls on a capacity far more accessible than most people imagine. When I listen to data, I keep it simple.
Find a tool that works best for you. The visual analytics software Tableau picks up where Excel leaves off, and its capacity to look at data from all sides has changed our lives. When you can see the peaks and valleys — traffic spikes or sales dips — from a multidimensional viewpoint, finding the correlations between your marketing, the market, and other external factors becomes much easier.
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Skin-Deep and Scratching the Surface
Some things aren’t that difficult to figure out. Why does Kim Kardashian have so many followers on Instagram? What drives the volume of her engagement? Many celebrities post photos of themselves to sell products and expand their market. When you compare the number of likes one photo attracts over another, it is not hard to see which types of images capture more attention.
Many analytics folks try to uncover the deeper “whys” of the way of the world, but in reality, it doesn’t need to be that complex. We are not NASA. If you’re driving traffic to a website, start by looking at what volume you’re getting. You can’t predict what will go viral, but you can ask what happened on the days of your spikes. Is there anything you can pull from that basic data?
Yes, a business’ growth will plateau at some point and require a different type of data analysis, but 98% of my clients haven’t even scratched the surface because they are afraid they have to do these deep, dark, hard evaluations. For many companies, all you need is the basic data.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions
Even if it seems everyone in the room knows more than you, asking those “obvious” questions can actually help make people think you’re smarter. You are also doing a service to people intimidated by asking those same questions. Generations ago, U.S. presidents could hold a war briefing and take days or longer to answer questions that arose from the press pack. Now leaders are expected to have instant answers at the risk of appearing incompetent. This world expects everyone to know everything immediately.
Asking basic questions is not annoying. I love these questions because they help me understand what the client is thinking. The biggest challenge is whether they are going to listen to my answer. It is also important for clients to realize that they are not the first to go through whatever challenge they are experiencing. You don’t need to recreate the solution. The fleeting vulnerability of asking questions is worth it to help use data to turn things around.
Data is Simpler Than You Imagine
Most people fear data because of a misunderstanding and the prospect of appearing foolish. Contrary to the image of data as deeply buried and requiring forensic analysis, you are going to get most of your pertinent information from scratching the surface.
For businesses that use an agency to handle data, lean on them as an extension of your own team, so the relationship is built on trust, not cost. When we are engaged in true partnership, clients won’t be afraid to ask questions, and agencies won’t be afraid to answer honestly. The only “gotcha” in data is grabbing hold of the right information.