Many companies say they want to be "data-driven," but surprisingly few are actually managing it. That might be because there's no commonly accepted definition of  "data-driven," or it could be they are putting technology before strategy.

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To sort it out, I invited Linda Schumacher, senior director of analytics and data strategy at customer experience company Qualified Digital, to Marketing Smarts.

We talked about what it means to be data-driven and what the first steps are toward achieving that goal; we also explored some pitfalls to avoid when creating your analytics budget, and Linda offered insight into how to assess your company's level of maturity in relation to being data-driven.

Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

If you're not thinking about how to use the data you collect to improve customer experience, you're not being "data-driven" (02:12): "There are three key components to being data-driven. First of all, the organization, the brand, should be customer-focused. And [should] know that if they improve customer experience that, in fact, they will improve business outcomes. Along with that, they should take the time to generate a data strategy, which is really just a map that outlines how data's going to be used, how it's going to be collected, stored, and analyzed and activated.

"The third thing is, if you are a brand that is actively collecting data, then it's really incumbent upon you to be using that data somehow to improve your customers' experience. Whether that be through personalization or using the data to test different experiences to make sure, for example, that your website is working as well as it should be. Those are the three components I think about when I talk to a brand about whether or not they're focusing on data-driven strategy."

Put strategy before technology (09:24): "It really does start with...the strategy. What are our goals and objectives? How do we want our customer to experience our brand? Let's become more focused right now...on inbound Web experiences. That's my primary use case. The customers are finding us somehow through advertising or word of mouth. They're coming to our website and they're experiencing our brand for the first time or they are returning.

"And what is it that we want to say to them? Who are they? And how can we understand what their reason is for coming to our Web property? How can we make that experience better? Starting with that strategy, the mapping of the use cases, is really key. And once you do that work, you will be really surprised to see how much easier it is then to move into 'OK, how do we solve for that,' 'What are the right technologies?'"

To become truly data-driven, you have to plan way ahead (and then execute) (18:00): "There are some different, great maturity models out there. There's even some assessments...that would allow you to go through and see where you as an organization are in this [data-driven] maturity.... Identify the different data sources that [you] have, look at [your] martech tools, and look at [your] overall strategy and do some of this initial work.

"Identify some short-term steps [you] can do right now and what would be the impact of deploying those in the next three to six months. And then what the longer-term looks like. Because we want to be out here, and that might take a year or 18 months to get there. But let's start to map it out now, so that when 18 months comes, you're actually there as opposed to having said 18 months earlier that you would like to be there."

To learn more, visit qualifiedigital.com. You can also follow the company on Twitter at @qualfiedigital or connect with Linda on LinkedIn.

Linda and I talked about much more, so be sure to listen to the entire show, which you can do above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!

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Music credit: Noam Weinstein.