There is no dearth of data for marketers to draw conclusions from, but building insights that drive smart decisions is a more nuanced and valuable skill.
My college career was a whirlwind of physics and psychology classes, but I vividly recall the one art history seminar I audited my sophomore year. The instructor made an observation that has stuck with me to this day: “Collecting is the easy part. Curating—now that is the hard part.”
I am struck by how prescient this observation was—a continuing truism in the world of art, for sure, but also an emerging insight into today’s changing business and marketing environment.
When we think about a curator, we typically imagine someone who can bring together paintings, sculpture and artifacts to convey a unique perspective on an artist, an era or even a social movement.
But when I think about curation in a broader sense, I focus on new perspectives or ideas that arise from any combination of things, in business as well as art. As we are trying to make good decisions about where to grow business, we can collect a lot of information from various sources; lack of data is not the problem. But are we appropriately curating that information to drive a unique perspective for our brands or customers?
Lots of folks can “collect” data from a number of sources and spend a few minutes lining the numbers up in parallel spreadsheet columns to create something called an integrated database. But refined data integration, the curator’s principle task and skill, requires much more. Similar to the curator of a major Vincent van Gogh or Pablo Picasso exhibit, data curators need to follow some simple steps to elevate their work from good to great, to generate unique perspectives and insights and tell a story that resonates.
1. Know your objective from the start.
It may seem obvious, but having a clear picture of what you want to achieve is essential, and the more specific, the better. This will help separate data that is truly useful from what is simply available. Opportunism is fine, but it should not be your guiding principle. Extraneous data will just add noise to the system.
Too often I see exercises in “data exploration” without a compass or end point. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against an interrogation of the data, but unstructured data-fishing often leads to dead ends or insignificant insights. Having the objective in place is also important because you need a clear understanding of how the marketing environment operates and how the sources can serve as a proxy for market dynamics. This perspective can ensure your analyses yield relevant insights.
2. See the bigger picture with an eye toward implementation.
In everything you do, think of larger contexts. How will your integrated data set be used? Who will be turning to it most often? The data sets are less important than the insights we are looking to activate and our reason for activation. How will they be applied by your business?
The curation process is almost like reverse engineering, working back from the decision, rather than from the bottom with the data. Having this sensibility is key because the goal is to drive change, not just develop an insight. Plan your analyses knowing what decisions need to be made, who is deciding and how the decisions will be made.
3. Be directive, not dogmatic.
The intent of data integration is not to abandon or replace surveys and other custom solutions at all costs; this is a major misunderstanding about the curation and insight generation process. There are some questions that can only be answered by a direct, targeted approach.
When you know the information you already have from behavioral sources, you can look to fill in the most important blanks with survey insights. This will allow you to save the respondent’s time and energy for the issues where their input is indispensable.
Saying that you need and want only secondary data is more dogmatic than anything; you need to follow where the insight and the decision lead. The appropriate proxy could be both primary and secondary sources. The point is to respond to your goals with clarity and as few preconceptions as possible.
4. Be additive, not duplicative.
In assembling your data stories and libraries, look for data sources that complement rather than overlap. Having two different metrics for the same market dynamic is confusing, not constructive. It may take some extra time to find the right yin to your existing data’s yang, but good curation requires looking beyond the options handed to you. If you are not willing to push to be better, your insights and decisions will suffer.
5. Embrace transparency.
Do not accept ambiguity in your data sources, and avoid it in your own output. Understand the quality and limitations of your data sources before you bring them together, and look for better data if you are not satisfied. By the same token, be very clear with your audiences about how you have combined and edited information, so they know what they are getting and how they can and cannot use it. Black box approaches ultimately benefit no one.
6. Understand your audiences.
To make your curation efforts pay dividends, you need to be sure that the results are served in ways that will speak to their intended audiences. We need to bring this sensibility to every curatorial engagement for a brand or client.
At the most fundamental level, know how many types of users want to digest and use the information you are providing. Understand the decisions they need to make, and put the right data front and center in your dashboard or deck. Think about nuances like pairings; putting one insight next to another may bring out new implications in both, just as hanging two paintings side by side reveals unseen elements in each.
7. Be data-agnostic.
Nimbleness and flexibility are essential qualities of the data curator. If the engagement’s goals require that we incorporate third-party data, publicly available sources and the client’s loyalty card records, do not resist the obvious. Predetermined ideas about where proper insights come from and who is profiting can distract you from your top priority: meeting the client’s stated needs.
8. The act of curation is about communication.
In the end, curation is profoundly active. We are not just moving puzzle pieces around, we are creating a work that is part science, part art and largely shaped by the curator. It is the job of the business to give the curator enough information to do his or her job right. The curator, in turn, should fearlessly pursue the goals of his or her clients, always on the hunt for better data, deeper insights and clearer connections between statistics and decisions.
David Krajicek is CCO of GfK Consumer Experiences and a member of GfK’s board of directors. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.