The big need now is not so much technological. It's actually as simple as step-by-step guidance. But that can be costly, and requires trust on the part of agencies with the data analytics providers they employ.
Visualization's Limited Role
This week, TagMan produced an upgrade to its Visual Insights Suite, which is intended to give brands an "intuitive" look at how their search marketing has led to purchases. Meanwhile, analytics startup SumAll has integrated Foursquare check-ins for its clients, offering to provide a clearer sense of how promotions have been working for restaurants and events. But for the moment, these "improvements" are about making data more quickly readable than actionable, agency executives say.
"The early iterations of data visualization are typically more flash than substance," said Michael Dowd, chief technologist for WPP's GroupM Next, when asked about the kinds of visualization services available. "Dashboards collect a lot of attention, but unless those data visualizations are directly facilitating the implementation of better strategies, they are not particularly valuable to us as marketers. Some marketing concepts are simply too complex to represent cleanly within a dashboard."
That said, the visualization dashboards capably serve two purposes, Dowd said: representing data for those who are not actively making strategic and tactical decisions, and guiding deeper analysis for those who are.
Dowd said he sees these products as "a supplement to existing marketing strategies, not a replacement. And ultimately, tools like the ones from TagMan, Placeable and SumAll can become an asset to marketers and businesses alike."
Function Over Aesthetics
The main virtue of data visualization is that it helps agency executives and marketers make sense of the reams of spreadsheets and numbers through immediately understood patterns. It's more than just pie charts, but it doesn't have to be more complicated than that. But, more than aesthetics, the point is to give structure to vast collections of consumer data from numerous online and offline channels, noted Anna Nicanorova, data scientist at Omnicom's Annalect. Even though media buying is the flip side of the creative part of the agency, media plans and results need to be communicated in a narrative fashion.
When choosing a data-visualization provider, Nicanorova said she investigates the functionality of dealing with data, rather than the final visual output.
"A lot of applications will claim that they were created for big data, but under closer examination we constantly find a lot of restrictions on the size, types and file formats," Nicanorova said. "We always closely examine the back-end infrastructure that handles data ingestion, to make sure that the specific visualization tool provides a proper pipeline to get the data into the application in the first place.
While there is a lot of attention being paid to chart types and what colors to use, Nicanorova said she is noticing more practicality from clients these days. In particular, there is a greater demand for "data interactivity." In essence, it's more valuable to have all the information filtered into a single chart, rather than having to sift through a pictorial version of different data sets. The way Nicanorova would like to see the final visualization is through the ability to hover, zoom and filter the visual information she receives.
The big things are control, synthesis and customization.
"A beautiful data visualization that doesn’t help achieve a client’s KPI is nothing more than a pretty screensaver," she said. "You can’t have an all-encompassing view because it’s going to result in information overload. … If a client is looking to increase ROI and their dashboard isn’t helping them to do that, then they should look for a better solution because quantifiable results are what good data visualizations should provide them."