As a marketer, you probably already realize that to stay competitive, you can't ignore Big Data as a tool for insights and smart decision-making. The trickier issue, however, is how to avoid the big headaches of overly technical implementations.

Fortunately, business analytics and data-visualization software can help you avoid having to double as an engineer to extract value from data. That move toward democratizing data is pushing our field to new heights.

Think of any marketing goal and the key to success likely comes down to data. Whether you're looking to analyze survey responses, track social mentions or campaign revenue, assess buying behavior, or parse geographic variations in brand loyalty, you can't get very far without agile management of huge streams of complex, ever-changing, and often unstructured data from multiple sources.

Some companies have such unique analytics needs on an enterprise scale that they opt for a corps of data scientists, whose complex work to combine databases involves highly specialized engineering skills, break-the-bank salaries, long timelines, and huge capitalization costs.

Most marketing operations, however, can't do that... and frankly don't want to. They are better off using multiple existing data sources—like Google Analytics, account records, Salesforce data, etc.—in a more accessible "data-blending" approach that overlays this varied information into a single, visually coherent and flexible workspace where you can play with the data to reveal trends and insights.

Regardless of your specific approach to marketing analytics, you need to have the right mindset if you want to get the most value from the effort.

Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Reconsidering the Data Scientist

Data scientists play an important role. Their work can involve complicated analytic builds—building database marketing models or enterprise resource planning (ERP) projects, for example—to combine and customize different databases. But with many of the most crucial forms of marketing analytics, it's typically far more important to democratize data to more users beyond just the data scientist.

Particularly with data-visualization tools, which should be about intuitive and easy access to data, building technological moats around a product in the form of complex coding or engineering requirements doesn't make sense. Everyday business users should be able to access a good data-visualization tool to start innovating while also dispensing with more familiar hurdles, like spending tedious hours building Excel charts. That's where the agility and insights begin as you play with dimensions and measures to build instant graphic representations of the data and relationships. You'll know you're on the right track when what used to be a chore starts to be actually kind of fun.

The Uses and Limits of Data

The Big Data revolution and easy visualization options have removed most excuses not to factor in the data when making big decisions. That is true particularly when you can discover valuable hidden patterns you might not have even thought to look for. With good marketing analytics, we can learn to trust data as a way to round out our marketing instincts.

As we've seen from the winning ways of the number-crunching baseball managers in the movie Moneyball and the breakthrough insights of Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and others in behavioral economics, plain old intuition can be just plain wrong if you ignore the data. Recent MIT research shows data-driven businesses indeed have the edge, and the marketing sector is the latest in a growing list of industries that have adopted Big Data as the ultimate "gut check" before strategic decisions get made.

Making Data Insights Easier to Share

If you're in the business of telling a marketing story or advocating a strategy to your management or your clients, you should consider sharing your data in a visually compelling way. To paraphrase the sentiment that one Tableau client recently shared, as enthralling as a logistic regression may be to some data scientists, the ability to show a colorful, graphic, perhaps even beautiful dashboard is a lot more compelling. That client, SIGMA Marketing Insights, is an integrated marketing services company that uses Tableau to visualize data and communicate marketing insights through an online portal that SIGMA's own customers can access from a computer or their mobile devices.

You should be able to be creative with layout, colors, and other graphic elements; a heat map, for instance, should use color and circle size to automatically convey impact. Many systems allow you to easily add annotated text to highlight and explain a peak, valley, or other significant detail. And you can take advantage of options to easily and securely share reports with colleagues and clients, for instance, with unique URLs you can email and recipients can subscribe to for automatic updates. 

Additionally, data-visualization tools can help you to share not just insights but recommendations as well. Especially in a competitive marketing environment, you need to do more than just explain what's happening; you need to provide counsel and advice. And it helps when you can use intuitive, colorful graphics to support your strategic recommendations.

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From small companies and research firms, to huge agencies with big account rosters, every corner of today's marketing world is learning the value of Big Data… except the corner you'll be backed into if you mismanage this tremendous resource.

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image of Elissa Fink

Elissa Fink is chief marketing officer at Tableau Software.