What Good Is Data Without Context?

In our modern society, data mining and implementation is designed to be faster and easier than ever before – meaning that all of us good boys and girls are digesting, analyzing, and adjusting our strategies based on real-time metrics, right?
Well, not so fast. Despite our increased access to accurate, timely data, many marketers struggle to update, augment, and optimize their materials accordingly. There are a number of potential reasons for this counter intuitive, ironic phenomenon: we’re overwhelmed, we’re disorganized, we’re unqualified, or we’re just plain lazy. Any combination of these factors is likely to blame for our difficulties integrating this highly accessible data, but a closer examination of the problem actually reveals two timeless solutions: context and critical thinking. It’s not enough to just plug and chug the data; we need to study it with a deft mind and a more thorough, holistic understanding of the factors that influence the information. When we do that, the data transcends a static existence and bursts to life.

Meaning Making

The rise of technology has created an entirely new landscape in which we are presented with more data than ever before, but this new landscape is densely saturated with information – some of it useful, some of it not so much. In order to crystalize meaning out of this information overload, it’s important to carefully sift through the data. Furthermore, we need to understand why we find certain data elements pertinent and others irrelevant. This process will depend heavily on applying context and critical thinking to the incoming and outgoing data. We have to understand what we are analyzing and how these figures and our analysis of them fits into our goals and objectives. Implicit in any discussion of big data is the understanding that the speed at which our available information is changing is just as important as the enormity of that data. And an extension of that implication is that language and communication are human constructs that seem static but are more fluid than a raging river. As such, meaning can be messy. It can be complex. It can be nuanced. If we aren’t all operating under the same assumptions with the same or similar knowledge base and an agreed-upon set of terms, things can get off track in a hurry. That said, the first and most vital step in harnessing your data and putting it to good use is implementing a comprehensive strategy from the very beginning and establishing troubleshooting measures that are just as fluid as the data you are analyzing. It’s fair to make a few assumptions when first developing certain marketing hypotheses, but recognize that these assumptions are fallible, and avoid confirmation bias by examining the data subjectively and consistently. Causation does not equal correlation, so make sure that you have a large enough sample size before rushing to judgment and that you are investigating all the variables when analyzing the information at your disposal. For instance, your PPC campaign might be generating a massive number of clicks, but if those clicks aren’t converting, there might be keywords that are drawing traffic from irrelevant searches. This can be remedied through customizing your match types or adding negative keywords, but unless you are examining your campaigns regularly and holistically, you might not even realize that a problem exists.

Channel Attribution

Once you understand that data is worthless without ascribing meaning to it through critical thinking, there are some practical steps you can take to collect, analyze, and utilize the right data. One of these steps is examining the channels through which you are receiving information. Marketers are now presented with myriad channels – social, blog, pay-per-click (PPC), etc. – and each of these avenues needs to be scrutinized and held accountable for the amount and quality of leads that they may or may not be generating. By setting up attribution by channel, you can determine which of those channels are responsible for which traffic, which leads, and which amount of revenue. In doing so, you can focus your efforts on your prevailing marketing assets and perhaps improve those that are dwindling. For instance, you might be receiving 100 new leads every month, but if 99 of those are coming via your email drip campaign, what does that say for your approach to and treatment of other channels? On the one hand, the data affirms the efficacy of your emails, but it also points toward an opportunity to optimize (or downsize) your PPC or social efforts, among others. Proceed accordingly.

Customer Segmentation

Many marketing professionals take the unwarranted (and unwise) view of segmentation as exclusionary when in fact, the exact opposite is true. By segmenting your audience, you are able to avoid needlessly pursuing uninterested clients and focus on those who are actually in need of your services. In this way, you can develop ideal client personas for your services within each marketing channel, narrowing your focus and increasing your ROI. If you fail to initiate accurate segmentation, there will be no way to determine your target audience, and the numbers will remain vague and useless. When segmenting your audience, you should not only be aware of standard demographic factors (such as geography, gender, and age), but also how these different demographics interact with different marketing channels. If you have done a good job of setting up your Facebook analytics, for instance, then you should be able to tell who is visiting and engaging with your company’s profile page. Understanding these segments will help you adjust the tone, language, and content of your posts.

Identifying Useful Content

More than ever, we now have the ability to dissect which chunks of content are most interesting for prospective clients. Not only do we have the ability, though; we can actually automate this information to be delivered at regular intervals and in real time. This is especially helpful when updating your blog. By creating timely reports of page visits, time spent on page, and conversions, you can easily determine which topics drove the most traffic and seek to replicate those results with similar or supplemental content. Additionally, you can ascertain the geographic source of your audience, which will help you tailor content based on their location. Another convenient and effective way in which data is making lives easier for marketers is through Google Trends. This tool shows us when certain terms are being searched and at what rate. It can also point us toward preferred search verbiage related to specific topics and assist our efforts in measuring market demand. If you’re planning on constructing a piece of content that is centered on “product liability,” for instance, Google Trends will help you conclude which search terms are generating the most traffic, allowing you to capitalize on an opportunity in a more targeted manner. You can then use this information across your marketing platforms.


The goal of collecting and analyzing big data is to remove the guesswork from our marketing efforts. However, in order to do so, we have to be willing and able to resist the urge to accept the information presented at face value. We have to use this data in a way that accelerates our strategies and aligns with our troubleshooting. We have to attribute our traffic, segment our audience, and identify and create useful, engaging content for our audience, all based on a close examination of our resources and the incoming information. Contrary to popular opinion, numbers do lie occasionally (or maybe they fib?), which is why applying context and critical thinking is such a vital component of data analysis. Data creates opportunity; we create meaning.