For decades we marketers have promised a response to the almost centuries old observation by John Wanamaker, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Advanced user tracking and mass data collection was supposed to transform our industry and provide new accountability. We became convinced data itself would drive a maxim of delivering,“The right message, to the right audience, at the right time.” The details of how exactly that would happen were conveniently missing. They still are.

The truth for most marketers is all of the data we indiscriminately toss into pie charts, giant tables and fancy dashboard widgets doesn’t tell us much. Data is not the destination. Data isn’t insight or wisdom. It is just information that needs to be transformed, analyzed, turned into understanding and shared by people with the skills, training and commitment to do so.

I often joke that few in our industry ever found themselves in an algebra class thinking, “Wow, I love this stuff so much, I think I will get a job in marketing!” Marketing was supposed to be the fun job where you meet local celebrities and drink at your desk. Yet here we are, our industry taken over by ones and zeroes, self-serve real-time bidding platforms and owned by technology companies. Every digital tactic generates enormous amounts of data and we desperately need people who know what to do with it.

In truth, we are still an industry that talks about CTR going up, until it stops going up, then we talk about anything else. We cheer when bounce rate goes down, until it stops going down, then we wonder why we ever talked about it in the first place. Many marketers are stuck thinking in terms of traditional advertising, striving to get the most impressions for the least amount of money and using that as the measure of success. The promise of data isn’t recognized because data itself isn’t the destination. We need to learn how to use it.

We’ve spent three decades building systems to collect every bit of information possible. The next three decades, our future, is figuring out what we actually need to measure, how to refine the data collected so we can transform, understand and activate it. The insights we could derive are capable of putting marketing in the driver’s seat of the entire business. We won’t get there charting bounce rate month-over-month and ignoring our real objective – usually to make money or get people to take a very specific action.

Every marketer needs to take stock. Ask themselves, “Am I just looking at and presenting raw data or am I actually delivering insight?” That question should be asked each and every single time they toss a chart or table into a presentation. Then they need to ask it when staring into the reports and dashboard widgets provided by vendors, partners and other departments. More often than not, the answer is going to be “just looking at and presenting data.”

I would like to tell you the path after recognizing the problem is an easy one to follow. It isn’t. Many promise they have software and dashboards that can this work for you. They don’t. Some are hoping artificial intelligence will be here tomorrow, ready to do it for them. It won’t either.

Like all things, hard work, education and commitment are the next steps. Marketers are either going to have to commit themselves to learning how to activate this data and dive deep into marketing analytics or find employees or partners to help them. I say “help” because marketers will still need to know enough about what is involved to ask for exactly what they need and then be able to effectively assimilate, process and clearly and effectively dispense what comes back to others.

Welcome to the next era of marketing. Making sense of everything we’ve spent the last thirty years building.

Would you like to learn how to turn data into actionable insight? Download our free e-book: The Stories Data Drive Marketers Should Be Telling You.

The Stories Data Drive Marketers Should Be Telling