5 min Read
December 19, 2018

So much data, so little time

Beth Hallowell

Have you ever felt like you’re drowning in data?

Google analytics, social listening platforms, media monitoring platforms, your organization’s CRM or donor database: the list of communications data sources seems to grow each year, while the inner workings of each system change all the time (constant updates to Facebook Insights anyone?).

There’s no end to blog posts out there on which metrics to watch, but not every metric is worth watching for every organization. You know you need data to make decisions, but how do you know you’re looking at the right data, when there’s so much of it and you’re already pressed for time?

Learning how to strike a balance between collecting the right data and the right amount of data starts with your audience and goals. Here are a few tips for finding that balance, based on what we’ve been learning at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC): 

1. Start with your audience.

If you’ve never conducted any communications research, now is a great time to start. Identifying your audience and their needs is the first step to forming a communications plan. It’s also the first step in determining which types of data you need to collect to understand your audience’s engagement with your organization, cause, or campaign.

Good communications data tells you something about audience behavior. While vanity metrics like impressions or exposure can tell you a teeny bit about how a particular social media algorithm is working for or against your content, many metrics tell you next to nothing about how your audience feels, what’s important to them, what they need, or how they are changing their behavior—all things you actually need to know about to achieve your goals.

2. Decide how many goals and KPIs you can realistically track.

How many goals should your communications plan have? How many KPIs (key performance indicators) or metrics should you track to see your progress towards each goal? The answer to each of these questions is, “it depends.”

A good communications plan will have at least one goal, and likely more than one. And, each goal should have at least one indicator of success attached to it. But do you need four goals with five indicators under each one? Before determining how many goals and indicators you need, consider how much data you need to understand in a meaningful way if your audience is responding to your communications—and how much bandwidth you have for digesting that data.

For example, if your goal is to increase your audience’s engagement with your cause, there are hundreds of combinations of metrics out there that you could look at to see if that’s happening. Balance how much data you can realistically digest—say, one goal with three KPIs, or two goals with two KPIs each—with the time that you or your team has to collect meaningful data.

3. Collect good data that tells the story you need to hear.

By good data, I mean accurate information that tells you something about your audience’s behavior. Chances are you’re already collecting at least some good data, and maybe the majority of your data is good. But there’s a lot of bad data out there, and there’s also a lot of accurate information that fails to tell you anything useful about your audience’s behavior.

An example: let’s say your goal is to increase engagement with your cause. One of your KPIs is to improve your newsletter’s performance, as an indicator of increased engagement with your cause. Make sure that the data in your CRM is accurate, and that you know how it reports out different metrics. Numbers like “unique opens” are more straightforward than “number of bounces,” since what counts as a bounce can vary across system.

Once you know your data is accurate, make sure it is telling you the story you need to hear. What does it mean that more people are opening your newsletter? What did they do once they read it? Which is why you need a little extra data, for context.

4. Collect a little extra data to give context to your audience’s behavior.

So you are trying to increase engagement with your cause, and to do that you are trying to increase your newsletter’s performance. You see that your open rate is going up, and so is your click-through rate. That’s great! But how do you know your engagement goes any deeper than that? This is where taking the time to collect a little extra data can go a long way.

At AFSC, we’ve been tracking email performance as a measure of engagement, and we’ve run experiments—like trying out a new email calendar and testing into better segmentation—to help increase our open and click-through rates. But it wasn’t until we started noticing that our email tests were not only improving those rates, but driving traffic back to the website in droves, that we got really excited.

This showed us that our audience was engaging not just with an individual email, but with our web content too. We wouldn’t have noticed this if we weren’t also tracking email referrals to the website—something that was a little bit outside our goal of increasing email engagement, but which has turned out to yield important context for our email metrics.

The trick is to collect just enough extra data to give context to your key metrics, without exceeding your team’s bandwidth, or your own. Bonus points if you organize and share your data via a dashboard that shows how your audience’s behavior is changing over time.

If it seems time-consuming to figure out exactly how much good data you need to tell you a meaningful story about your audience’s behavior, consider this: not taking the time to do so may mean you’re chasing vanity metrics that at best teach you very little, and at worse mislead you into thinking that you are having a bigger impact on your audience than you are. So as you look ahead to 2019, consider taking the time to think about your audience, set goals, and collect good data to tell yourself a meaningful story in the year to come.