In his now-classic book “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information,” Edward Tufte showcased a thematic map by the French civil engineer Charles Joseph Minard. Drawn in 1861, the map uses various lines and scales to depict Napoleon's army during the Russian campaign of 1812 as it marched from the Polish-Russian border to Moscow and then retreated back to the border, all the while suffering heavy losses.
“It may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn,” wrote Tufte, a leading expert on information design and visual communication. What makes the graphic so exceptional is that Minard effectively captured multiple variables in a two-dimensional image. These variables include the declining size of the army over time, the direction and location of the army on different dates as it advanced and retreated, and the below-freezing temperatures at various points along the way.
When it comes to analyzing marketing campaign results and other performance metrics to make smarter marketing decisions, chief marketing officers might look to Minard for inspiration. Integrating disparate types of data into an easy-to-understand graphical format that can yield actionable insights is no easy task. At the same time, in moving beyond the constraints of pen and paper—and, for that matter, the constraints of Excel and PowerPoint—CMOs need to be aware of the new possibilities of the computer as a medium for data visualization.
The power of next-generation dashboards lies largely in the user’s ability to interact with data to reveal hidden patterns, connections, and insights. “When you see something of interest on the screen, your inclination is to roll your mouse over it,” says Tom Gonzalez, the managing director of BrightPoint Consulting, a software development firm specializing in dashboard solutions. “By bringing the user experience into data visualization, you’re creating a new dimension of analysis.”
Gonzalez believes that the key to developing effective dashboards is to work with visual metaphors that people already understand and are comfortable using. The idea is to then stretch those metaphors in new directions, which is a lot more practical than asking users to learn a whole new visual language. He also believes that an esthetically pleasing interface is easier to use than an unattractive one.
“Some visualization purists will criticize anything that is superfluous to the transmittal of raw data,” Gonzalez says. “But what gets lost in that is the strong emotional connection people have to user interfaces. While you might not be transmitting an actual numeric value, you’re nonetheless translating other bits of information that encourages the user to spend more time understanding what’s in front of them.”
Pat LaPointe, the managing director of MarketingNPV, a firm that provides strategic consulting services related to dashboard development, agrees that interactivity represents the next generation of data visualization. More than constructing a time-series line chart that is dynamically rendered based on changes to the data, it means giving the user intuitive mechanisms for navigation.
“Users should be able to simply click on a bar chart or drag and drop different data elements on and off the chart in real time to see how different relationships between the elements create different conclusions,” LaPointe says.
This same point was echoed by Wayne Eckerson, the director of research and services for The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI) and author of “Performance Dashboards: Measuring, Monitoring, and Managing Your Business.” According to Eckerson, dashboards should provide layered access to information, from a high “graphical abstracted” level to a “summarized dimensional” level to a “detailed operational” level. That way, says Eckerson, users can “drill down to explore the root causes of exception conditions.”
Eckerson believes that dashboards can convey a lot of information using standard charts and simple icons, such as color-coded circles or arrows. Here he takes a less-is-more approach. “From a design perspective, people bastardize the look and feel of a dashboard all the time,” he says. “They clutter up the screen with useless decoration and fail to use color, placement, etc., to convey the most important information so that it can be viewed at a glance.”
Agreeing on metrics
According to LaPointe, who is also the author of “Marketing by the Dashboard Light,” the most complex and challenging part of creating a marketing dashboard may be the first step, which is getting the organization to agree on the metrics. “The vast majority of marketing organizations are still stuck on trying to solve the problem of what are the right metrics,” he says. “Just having the right metrics is transformational for the organization.”
Consider that many companies are trying to figure out the subcomponents of their brand value chain. They’re asking questions such as “If we invest money in doing some branding here, how will it impact consumers at various points of the consideration process, and how will it ultimately translate into incremental economic value?”
Once you have determined the right metrics, data visualization can parse the information and track the coefficients of progression in a clear and compelling way. Using a classic funnel construct, for example, marketers can see what percent of consumers at the top are migrating down through each successive stage and over what period of time, broken out by color-coded microsegments.
Of course, the funnel is only as good as the data that feed it. And identifying whether a given marketing campaign or tactic has an immediate or lagging effect—or no effect at all—on brand awareness means that the traditional semi-annual tracking wave is no longer enough. Instead, it means capturing a rolling sample on a continuous basis. Fortunately many research providers are evolving their sampling capabilities accordingly.
The combination of ongoing data updates and new visualization tools will help CMOs bridge the short- and long-term returns in a financial context. Ultimately the right colorful funnels will allow them to rely far less on intuition and anecdotal evidence when it comes to convincing the chief financial officer that their efforts to build brand equity are on the right track.
Visualizing the landscape
The market for data visualization technology is highly fractured and still in its infancy. As LaPointe sees it, explosions are happening in two categories. The first category consists of technology vendors that play predominantly in the retail space and have developed visualization tools specifically linked to the types of data one might collect in that environment. “The tools are extremely effective for the purposes for which they are intended,” LaPointe says.
A good example is a data visualization tool developed by my colleagues at Fair Isaac and recently deployed at several major retailers. The tool graphically displays information about the consistent merchandise items that consumers make in an interactive, “bundles and bridges” spider-web-like format. Dave Scamehorn, director of customer insight R&D at Best Buy, says that it “allows for many unique views across our entire product space. You can understand customer behavior over time and in different contexts. You see where relationships exist that you couldn’t otherwise.” The second category consists of more-general visualization tools. LaPointe believes that the market has moved past the limits of Excel, even though the new version boasts significant improvements in terms of the types and quality of the renderings of charts. “Most people have realized that those very linear structures are good for nothing other than the initial aggregation and validation of data,” he says. Market leaders include Advizor Solutions, Visual Mining, and Tableau Software. Other vendors include Corda Technologies and Noetix Corp., as well as some vendors of business intelligence applications such as ProClarity (now a Microsoft subsidiary) and Business Objects’ Xcelsius, which has a plug-in to Excel that can sit on top of any XML data structure.
LaPointe believes that, going forward, the market is likely to gravitate away from hard-coded proprietary software structures and toward flexible platforms. “Rich Internet applications are generally understood to be the way that people are going to be able to interact more effectively with dynamically rendered data,” he says. New versions of Adobe Flex and Flash, he adds, will likely create a tremendous amount of visualization opportunities that can be build to be specifically associated with data sets and done relatively inexpensively.
At that point, data visualization will become even more powerful, enabling marketers to play highly robust versions of the “if-then game” in their efforts to make the right marketing decisions. Increasingly dashboards will help CMOs navigate toward higher levels of success—while avoiding situations in which they might become seen as the corporate equivalent of Napoleon leading his troops through Russia during the cold winter of 1812.
Jeff Zabin is coauthor of "Precision Marketing" (Wiley, 2004) and a director in the Precision Marketing Group at Fair Isaac, a leading provider of marketing decision management solutions. He blogs at http://www.paretorules.com/ and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Further Dashboard Reading:
- Marketing Dashboards: The Visual Display of Marketing Data
- Keys to An Effective Marketing Dashboard
- Survey Asks: Are Marketers Measuring Up to ROI?