When Rand Blair was 12 years old he was assigned his first research paper—a daunting task for any 7th grader. A quick trip to the local library turned up his first major stumbling block: there were so many books. So a paper about archeology quickly became one on horoscopes—and when that was thwarted, it was on to gynecology. Why? During his first trip he became so overwhelmed that, when he saw a book on astrology right by the entrance, he grabbed it and ran versus carrying out some level of due diligence and seeking out the book that would have helped his paper along. On the second go he made a commitment to dig deeper and find the relevant information he needed to write a proper paper, but impatience set in and, after seeing a cue (the suffix “-ology”), he snagged a book and ran. That book? Gynecology Insights.

It’s a funny, memorable tale that our younger selves can relate to, but it’s also something Rand sees happening in the digital marketing universe today.  I caught up with Rand, a principal consultant with Adobe Professional Services, and he noted that like the hurried, impatient, well-meaning 12-year-old, even sophisticated marketers can become overwhelmed when faced with the vast amounts of data available today. It should be a good problem to have. We have so much information because of a seemingly endless supply of sources, countless platforms, and real-time metrics coming at us minute by minute. But, in reality, it’s a lot like that library, where finding exactly what we need to write that archeology paper—or carry out data-driven decisioning—can be extremely difficult without some level of curation and discern. And even when you have the background, the resources, and the knowledge to drill down to that level, seeing that much information at your fingertips can make you second-guess yourself and your motivations, to the point that a book on gynecology—or, in the case of the marketer, superfluous and potentially misleading directives—winds up driving next steps. The end result can be wrong turns, missteps, inefficiencies, and, possibly, a paper on astrological signs and reproductive systems.

“You may laugh and think this is funny . . . but what’s interesting about this story is that many marketers are using this exact same approach to optimize their website,” explained Rand. “They’re surrounded by data, they’re surrounded by books. But they’re grabbing the test ideas that are easiest, they’re grabbing the test ideas that are closest to the door . . . they’re shooting from the hip because there’s so much urgency to get that 10-page paper done.”

So how can data be used in a way that inspires trust and confidence and drives meaningful, data-driven decisioning, testing, and optimization? This is a question that has frustrated many of Rand’s clients. To that end, during Adobe Summit 2014, Rand, in collaboration with the Fox Networks Group, gave a rundown of the three questions to ask that, when fleshed out, can help steer marketers to where they need to be looking. Likely, it’s not closest to the door.

  • Where are the 800-pound gorillas? Where can you dive deeper? Perhaps entry rate or other referral sources? Focus may be on the wrong questions or less meaningful data—page views or lower performing channels—which seem like natural heavy hitters, but may not be. “Optimize those templates and you win,” explained Rand.
  • Which pages are cash cows? What are the volume drivers on your site that will have an immediate, measurable impact? With limited time, these should be the core focus points, at least at first. It’s the Pareto Principal at play—80 percent of the wealth comes from 20 percent of the population. That 20 percent applies to your site, most likely. And those pages are your cash cows. Rank by revenue and dive in. Just because you envisioned a certain page moving the needle doesn’t mean it actually does.
  • Do I have any low performers? Simply, what page or pages aren’t pulling their weight? Maybe they’re high-volume performers, but they just don’t get it done. They could be high potential pages with bounce rate problems—which suggests “holes in your bucket.” Drill down to more calculated metrics such as revenue per page view (versus just revenue) or exit rate. Chances are, those are good indicators of gaping holes or, simply, they show what’s happening big picture. From here, pulling this analysis to entire categories or channels can effectively steer areas of focus.

What do his clients need to do after asking themselves these questions, according to Rand?

  1. Use the data to drive insights.
  2. Use those insights to drive hypotheses.
  3. Use the hypotheses to drive iterative tests with advanced segmentation.

According to Rand, digital marketers have long wanted the ability to make their analytics data actionable, and to optimize without having to anticipate all the success metrics and audiences they want to report on before running tests. They want to dig into test results, further segment to find that gold, and analyze success retrospectively. To this end, Adobe Target users have started leveraging Adobe Analytics as their reporting source. Be sure to check out this video for more info on the benefits of analytics-enhanced reporting.

We know where to go to get what we need, just like the young Rand. But once we’re there, staring down all that data, how do we know if our results, although accurate, are actually meaningful to our business? Without a strong sense of what moves the needle and what’s clutter, marketers can find themselves in a similar distress-laden situation, grasping for whatever book—or metric—is within arm’s reach.

Continue the conversation—or ask more about being an analytics-driven organization— with @randblair on Twitter.