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The Brightness and Contrast of Data Analytics


Photo by Filiberto Santillán on Unsplash

By Lauren Mastbaum

For the unfamiliar, data analytics can sound like science meant for the left-brained and mathematically minded. While data retrieval and analysis does rely on increasingly sophisticated algorithms, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, its core focus is still very much human — some would even say it can be more similar to observing a painting.

“Staring really closely at it, you see a lot of dots. That’s your data; it’s scattered,” explained Nandini Anantharaman, Head of Measurement at Google, at “Data & Analytics: A Fireside with Google, Cisco, and Salesforce” hosted by AMA chapters New York, Triangle, and Iowa. In continuing the painting metaphor, she described analytics as the process of discerning shapes and patterns from the dots, with analysts and marketers further defining their meaning.

Collecting raw data is hardly the issue when shooting for business optimization. Instead, data analytics begins with deciding how you should measure the collected data so you can glean learnings to help improve upon a campaign or technique. And much like art, this exercise requires a sharp eye and creative adjustments: Knowing which parts to highlight, which to ignore, and which to compare with each other.

Use More Than a Broad Brush

Data analytics is not only about measurement but also movement. “Perhaps something as much as 80% of the analytics that we end up doing will go underutilized,” commented Svein Olslund, Senior Director, Growth Marketing Actionable Insights and Analytics at Cisco. For data to have an influence on business, he said, it needs to be implemented in such a way that ensures action is being taken and impact is realized.

“Half of data is ‘dark data’ that is merely being stored, without being applied to illuminate a path to forward motion,” reiterated Peter Coffee, VP for Strategic Research at Salesforce. The key to leveraging data wisely? Remembering that its main purpose is to guide your business toward better decisions. To put it in an artist’s terms: If you have a wide palette, be intentional with how and when to choose each tool at your disposal.

Be Open to Negative Space

By virtue of placing some information under a spotlight, you will leave other data in the dark. When you do, question if what you’re showcasing is the most valuable insight for your business. Peter referred to the “streetlight effect”: Where the light is brighter may not be where the missing piece is. Customer relationship management (CRM) technology can document what happened to get where you are, but what about what didn’t happen?

Unfortunately, exploring those negative spaces of the picture — for instance, why a consumer abandoned a shopping cart — can be, well, negative. “You find out a lot of things you don’t want to hear about yourself,” Peter admitted, “such as how opaque or confusing or unfriendly your site may have been, and so it’s not the data that is fun to consume and it doesn’t produce pretty graphs. It’s ripping off the scabs and making yourself angry at the things you’re failing to do.” Of note, this challenge isn’t so much about adopting data analytics technology as it is about demonstrating strong leadership.

Verify Authenticity

Fraudulent art is no laughing matter. At best, it won’t do more than trick an audience, but at worst, it can lead to criminal charges. A curator of data should handle their work with similar care, keeping in mind that drawing any unethical inferences can shake the confidence of your consumers who provided the potentially anonymous data. “You need to validate what the data is telling you is accurate,” asserted Svein. “It’s important that we hit it head on and present it in a holistic way with context.”

And what if you do prove its veracity, but it’s a conclusion you weren’t looking for? “It is the job of data to tell us what we didn’t know, which may often violate what we want to be true – and some data scientists have said in various ways that if no one is getting mad at what they’re being told, the data scientists aren’t doing their job,” Peter chimed in. Culturally significant art challenges assumptions and changes minds. But here’s where data becomes technical again: A savvy business will know to extract emotion from whatever comes next. “When data has pointed out an answer that is not expected, the quick way to react is to have an open mind,” Nandini recommended. “Once you test it repeatedly, get ready to act on it.”

Lauren Mastbaum is a content manager at Red Ventures with a background in digital marketing. Since 2020, she has volunteered with AMA New York as an editor. You can connect with Lauren on LinkedIn.