In today's digital age, businesses have to move faster to compete and win, and the same is true of marketing and communications. There was a time when marketing, largely responsible for building a brand through advertising and public relations, was considered a mysterious art. Now, with businesses looking for speed, agility and efficient budget usage, marketing departments have completely changed into a quantifiable, data-based function. But how can businesses use data to drive marketing decisions?

More and more businesses expect marketing and communications teams to make decisions and gather insights by analyzing the data they collect from marketing programs and initiatives, such as direct marketing, social media, public relations and events. The days of marketing "artists" are gone.

Driving marketing decisions from data should become a habit.

Marketing and communications teams have acquired the ability to track an endless number of actions, from email opens to downloads to time on page. There are almost limitless ways to track marketing data with new innovations and tools.

Though data tracking tools are growing and varied, they have forever transformed marketing into a science, with data insights informing all decisions about new audience acquisition and target outreach going forward. Now, marketing and communications teams are swimming in data and under constant pressure to make smart and effective decisions based on that data.

Like anything overwhelming, it’s important to make data-driven decisions a weekly and monthly habit, not a quarterly event. With today's technology, there is no reason not to keep a finger on the pulse of your data to determine your next move. If you approach all of your marketing efforts with the idea that they can be continually improved, you will be laying the foundation for success.

Listen to the data, good and bad.

Successful marketing and communications strategies that result in qualified, sales-ready leads and awareness require good listening and plenty of adjustments along the way. One of the biggest obstacles to effective data interpretation is not understanding what the data is telling you; the second is not paying enough attention to the bad news and adjusting to improve the results.

Lay a data-driven foundation for future growth.

Tools are important in the quest to build a data-driven model, but the approach is even more crucial. Here are five basic steps to replicate success over time using data:

1. Track all data, then track some more. Even if you're a new startup with little or no budget, there are no excuses not to track all marketing and communications data. It doesn’t require expensive tools or a large budget. If you start an organic outreach program, all the useful social channels for businesses have tracking built in. Remember, you can always track with Google Alerts and Analytics. In fact, track all data until you know what is useful — you won’t know for a while, so track some more.

2. Establish data-based benchmarks for everything. Even if you're a startup, benchmark where you are with all marketing programs and initiatives. If you’ve never done email programs, then you should spend at least a month or quarter making informed assumptions to establish a baseline. Then, listen to the data, adjust accordingly and benchmark your starting point. Too many companies start benchmarking too late.

3. Consciously choose what data to pay attention to. Not all businesses should pay attention to the same data. If you know your potential revenue growth will come from 200 Fortune 500 accounts, then perhaps your “reach” data is not as important as your engagement data, though you should track both. If you want to reach new audiences, then the data that shows reach should have more weight. With marketing and communications departments overwhelmed with data, it’s important to understand the end goal and track everything, but pay attention to the data that matters most to your business. You may even want to question your executives to understand what they want measured.

4. Listen to the data and A/B test. This is where so many marketing and communications departments get into trouble. They don’t listen to the data; they assume what it’s telling them based on previous experiences. Then — and even worse — they don’t test their assumptions or try to improve the results. A marketer may come from a position where open email rates were 3%, but don’t assume that 3% is good. With A/B testing, you can test a 3% open assumption by changing subject lines, copy or the call to action. If you don’t assume that's the best you can do, you may be able to improve. And with 20,000 emails, that's significant.

5. Report meaningfully. If you track everything and pay attention to the right things, then reporting becomes meaningful, to your team and the rest of the business. Too many marketing departments track everything but also report everything, confusing themselves and executives who only care about marketing budget ROI. It’s easy to get caught up in the confusion of lots of tracked, and sometimes meaningless, marketing data. Your reports should be easy to understand and tell a data-based story. ...

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