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The Curious Thing About Data

  • Tammy Ammon

    Tammy Ammon

    Sr. Director of Thought Leadership, Writer and Storyteller

Created at January 15th, 2020

The Curious Thing About Data

I grew up in the age of the card catalog and Encyclopedia Britannica. If you had a question about any given topic, you had to make the trek to the library, dig through the card catalog, and then use the Dewey decimal system to roam the library aisles in search of your answer. 

If you were lucky enough, your parents owned a set of encyclopedias, and you could find your answers at home on the bookshelf. But this came with its own set of challenges – encyclopedias came in sets, they were expensive, they quickly became outdated, and often you didn’t have the volume you needed when you needed it. (Was I the only kid whose family only owned up to volume M, but was doing a report on volcanoes and needed volume V)? The bottom line, curiosity had a real price to it. Not the least of which was time.

Today, we are constantly asking questions. “Just Google it,” is part of our everyday language. We’ve literally got libraries upon libraries at our fingertips at anytime, day or night. To me, one of the best things about the age we live in is the ease with which we can ask questions, explore topics, and learn.

That got me thinking about how we approach solving marketing problems with analytics. We often still behave as if asking questions is expensive. We expect every question to yield insights, which often limits us in our thinking. Rather than going on a journey of curiosity, we settle for a series of standard questions and answers we know we can count on. They are unlikely to deliver any aha moments, but they are also unlikely to fail us. 

Let’s say we want to know, “How did our campaign perform?” We’ve been trained to evaluate all the usual questions with a dashboard approach – who we targeted, who was exposed, who responded, who took an action. These are all things we need to know and should be measuring; they are indicators of what happened. They tell us the results of our decisions and allow us to gauge how well those decisions delivered on our desired outcomes. Beyond that, these questions, on their surface, are unlikely to truly change our perceptions.

But what if in addition to a dashboard approach we also took a data exploration approach? Dashboards assume we know the right questions to ask, while a data exploration approach is rooted in curiosity. Rather than a standard set of questions, we approach the data one question at a time, letting each question yield the next curious question.

Who took action starts to broaden into questions like: what did they buy, did they buy what we advertised to them or something else, did they come to the store or buy from our website or app, what type of device did they use, what time of day did they buy, do they usually interact with us at that time of day, how did they pay, what is interesting about their preferences, did we know them or are they new to us? Each combination of questions offers the opportunity to find new patterns and insights.

And while this approach can seem overwhelming or time consuming, there are tools and technologies that can help make this easier. One of my favorites is natural language querying. If we organize and model our underlying data properly, we can use tools to ask questions of our data using real words. And we can get answers in real time.

Some questions will lead to nothing interesting, and that is entirely OK. We absolutely should make time for that. Other questions will lead to deeper exploration. They’ll lead us to ask more complicated versions of what if, why, and how come. And when there are just too many variables to consider, technologies like machine learning can help surface outliers and ultimately give us insights we wouldn’t have otherwise had. 

In our daily lives, we find ourselves asking questions constantly as answers no longer require a trip to the library but rather just require a few taps and swipes on our phones. With the data, analytics methodologies, and technologies we have available for marketing, it’s time to let go of the premise that we don’t have time to be curious. Think of the possibilities if we will allow our curiosity to go beyond the dashboard.

Learn more about how Acxiom’s Unified Data Layer (UDL) can power your curiosity with our audience, analytics and collaboration solutions.