Metaphors are powerful ways to influence thinking and change behavior. Both are needed inmarketinganalytics Marketing organizations today. We’ve idealized the pursuit of a data-driven marketing culture for at least the last eight years now. But, truth is, most of us have fallen short. Something is missing at the core. And it isn’t technology.

As I begin my new role as Director of Marketing Analytics for SAP Cloud CRM & Financials – and reflect on my last year as a digital intelligence consultant working for companies of all shapes and sizes – I do so with the affirmation that the key to data-driven success lies is in how we use (or don’t) data to engage and motivate our teams. My motto: Data helps, people deliver.

[What does that mean exactly? I think this short T-Mobile T-Force Team video (2:14) illustrates the point. I agree, Krissy, “the magic is in the people.”]

Thinking differently about data analytics

To get to where I think we ought to be going, I suggest that we start to think about data analytics differently. At least in Marketing. We need to stop focusing on what data is and instead focus on what we want data to do for us. Our relationship to data needs to get more practical, not esoteric.

Mainstream metaphors like Big Data, for example, just don’t serve marketing teams well. To be perfectly honest, I wish it abolished from the marketing lexicon altogether (relegated to a footnote referencing a period prior to data-driven enlightenment for my fellow marketeers). “Actionable” data is certainly better – it conveys an ideal outcome – but the problem is that data seldom (if ever) takes any action under its “own” volition (a topic/debate for another time).

People give data value. That’s the truth. And the more valuable the data is perceived to be the more actionable it becomes. Value and action are positively correlated. Quite literally, insight is in the eye of the beholder.

So, why aren’t the beholders much more involved?

Get up to your elbows in data opportunity

We really can’t afford to be passive consumers of data anymore (there are already far too many “doorstop reports” in circulation). We need to roll up our sleeves and interact with data. Get up to our elbows in it.

Data represents opportunity. This opportunity should be a great mobilizer. As marketing teams, we should be proactively exploring and probing these opportunities, considering different scenarios, testing hypotheses – and using data as storytelling attributes!

Human learning is context driven. Asking questions of data creates context – and often writes the story “byline” featured in our marketing reports – much like the back and forth of a dialogue. Don’t underestimate The Power of Why to fuel innovation and drive change (@AmandaLang_CBC). The result is very often the formation of a constructive and cooperative learning environment within marketing teams. And remember, it’s okay to leave some room for failure, the wager of any meaningful discovery or innovation (one reason, in fact, to be excited about the future of marketing!)

And – this is also the truth – you don’t have to be data scientists to take advantage of the opportunity. If you are curious, care, and can ask good questions – that ultimately take the shape of testable hypotheses – then you are well on your way to being a valued shepherd of data-driven activity within your marketing team.

So, without further ado, here are three data metaphors that I think start to pull at some of these chords:

Some new metaphors to inspire team-driven marketing analytics

  1. Data as currency. I have to credit Noah Elkins at eMarketer for implanting this metaphor deep into my psyche. I love it because it implies an “economy” for data. Data as a “tradable commodity.” Data as something that circulates between agents, teams. It has value. It is invested for growth. It isn’t warehoused somewhere. It’s right there in front of us, in our hands. Of course, it also has a more literal meaning, as the title of Brian Eisenberg’s  book suggests, “The Money is in the Data.” But the point I wish to emphasize is that data must circulate within marketing teams. Data without action is overhead. So, channel your inner Rod Tidwell and shout out next meeting, “Show me the DATA!”
  2. Data as clay. I’m not sure what the polar opposite of data is, but clay has got to be pretty close…and that is why I love the metaphor! Clay is a very tactile metaphor. We touch clay. We shape it. We use it to make other stuff. It is a transformative substance (in literature used to signify the material from which the human body is formed). In marketing, we “mold and shape” our data, for example, by asking questions of it and engaging in activities like customer segmentation and cohort analysis, prerequisites to creating context in marketing analytics.
    “Data! Data! Data!” he cried impatiently, “I cannot make bricks without clay!” – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sir A. Conan Doyle, 1892— Robb MacDonald (@RobbMacD01) September 26, 2013

    I love this quote. Our beloved Sherlock Holmes needs data (“clay”) to solve a mystery. He is “crying impatiently” because he is restless to make an evidence-based extrapolation, to draw a conclusion, or form a new hypothesis. Sherlock Holmes stories are adventures and – on the very best days, anyway – that is what data analysis is to me.

  3. Data as connective tissue. This metaphor begins where the clay metaphor leaves off. It is rooted directly in biology (not symbolically, like the clay metaphor). Connective tissue holds things together. Its function is to support, strengthen and connect. Is this not what we want from the “actionable insights” that are in such high demand within our marketing organization? Sure, we all want our performance numbers to trend up and to the right. A given. But take care of the support, strengthen and connect part and performance will take care of itself. I promise. In this sense, from my perspective, actionable insights are connective tissue.Hidden in this metaphor is the less obvious fact that connective tissue (in the body) proactively responds to the needs of the things which it connects. A world-class marketing analytics function should be equally as responsive to the needs of its stakeholders. For example, I often respond to team inquiries through ad-hoc analysis and various forms of data exploration, every bit as important – if not more so – to innovation and growth as standard scorecard reports and marketing dashboards.

Let these metaphors wash over you for a while. Use them, build on them, or spit them out…as you choose. But if you’re still struggling to be a data-driven within your marketing teams then try to think of new metaphors that might positively influence thinking and behavior. And if you come up with some good ones then I would love to hear about them!