Big data obsession has taken over many businesses. But what does it really offer? With so much information available, the trick isn’t in collecting as much as possible—but in knowing how to ask the right questions, analyze for meaningful insights, and use it to make informed decisions.

That’s the advice offered by Doug Zarkin, the VP-Chief Marketing Officer of Pearle Vision at Luxottica, when he joined us on The Marketing Executive podcast to share his vision of how data can help businesses make smarter, more customer-focused decisions. With over half a dozen marketing awards across various industries, Doug is also Brandweek’s “Marketer of the Next Generation.”

Using Data to Embody Brand Promise

Like many retailers, Pearle Vision has a proliferation of very valuable customer data but the majority of the customer experience happens offline, in eye-care centers or brick and mortar stores. But that hasn’t stopped Pearle from using data to inform many aspects of customer experience, whether that customer enters through a door or a browser. “What I love about the era of big data that we’re in,” says Doug, “is that it gives you access to information at a statistically sound level to help inform smart decision making.” And those decisions—whether they’re about product selection, the introduction of new technology, or analyzing their performance in other areas—are all about making sure that the customer is getting the care they deserve. “We are really using data to create a better human experience…in a business that is care-focused and people-based.”

One way that Pearle has leveraged data is by collecting and analyzing information from ratings and reviews. This data has given them the ability to track performance in aggregate, getting beyond the anecdotal level to figure out how specific locations of their franchises are performing over time according to the customers themselves. “You can begin to see a trend emerge,” Doug describes, “which allows us from a marketing perspective and an operations perspective to get in there: to triage if necessary, and deliver on our brand promise.” For Pearle, ensuring that each location offers a stellar customer experience is about embodying brand position. And their approach to that challenge is constantly informed by the data.

Data Doesn’t Make DecisionsPeople Make Decisions

According to Doug, organizations shouldn’t strive to be data-driven, but people-driven. Piles of data have no inherent worth: they are only as valuable as the insights they afford. In his experience, “data gathering is easy. Data analysis is incredibly challenging.” That means that the most important step is gathering a team with the right skill set. Making sure you have the right data analytics team in place can take you beyond the ‘what,’ which is the data itself, and allow you to focus on the ’so what,’ which is what the data means—so that you can decide what to do with it. Because “data doesn’t make decisions: people make decisions.”

So, how do you make sure you’re hiring the right people? Doug advises against just looking for data nerds: “you’re looking for folks that have the ability to see how trends emerge, how the breadcrumbs come together.” So, when you’re interviewing talent, you don’t necessarily want to focus on specific techniques and technologies: instead, ask them to identify the narrative in the data and use it to tell you a story.

Are You Asking the Right Questions?

Just as a pile of data isn’t inherently valuable, it also isn’t inherently meaningful. Understanding the limitations of data and the importance of correct framing, during both collection and analysis, is an essential aspect of sound data use. “You can ask a question of somebody on an 80 degree day and get a research report that says that it’s cold outside, depending on how you phrase the question,” says Doug.

“For us, it’s about spending a lot of time analyzing the data, but also spending equally if not more time making sure that we’re asking the right questions…We want to make sure that we’re asking the right questions to elicit the right answers. Those answers will then inform decisions that we make.”

Looking Ahead to 2018

Doug has optimism for 2018, in which he hopes to see the frenzy around “big data” calm down. Instead, he predicts that organizations will get smarter about how they use the data they’re collecting, and start paying more attention to the human element of generating data-informed insights—and other brands may want to look to Pearle Vision’s approach for guidance on how to achieve powerful results.

This post is based on a podcast interview with Doug Zarkin from Monetate. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Marketing Executive.

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