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Actionable Insights: How to Make Your Data Mean Something

Actionable insights might just be the holy grail. For marketers, publishers, brands — you name it, and no doubt time, money and many, many migraines are being spent trying to figure out what those bunch of numbers on a spreadsheet actually mean.

You might think that putting a bigger machine on your problem is going to solve things. But sometimes the answer’s just not in the data. Susan Athey – professor of economics at Stanford Graduate School of Business

Of course, not all numbers are equal, and not all sources of data are sound and business objectives vary and, well, you get it — understanding data isn’t so straightforward. Applying your understanding of it in a meaningful way? Even less so.

To understand actionable insights, you need to start at the bottom of the food chain: Data.

Data: These are, quite simply, the numbers and text filling up more cells on a spreadsheet than there seems stars in the sky, sometimes. Data can be quantitative (measurements) or qualitative (observations), but without a little help, this data is often meaningless and offers no actionable insight. So, this data needs to be turned into…

Information: All those database bits get processed and organized into something understandable by humans. Often you’ll see information organized into visuals — graphs, charts, reports and dashboards. Information itself is still value neutral — it alone doesn’t command action.

Insights: Now we’re getting somewhere. After the information, which comes from the data, has been analyzed, insight is gleaned.

Actionable Insights: Insights might answer some questions, but actionable insights provide a gateway to improvement or to taking a new approach. All that data-collecting and information-gathering are aimed at creating these actionable insights.


One of the greatest challenges in creating actionable insights is that data comes from a variety of sources, possibly creating problems with data management and data quality.


The year before the majority of marketers worldwide believed that using a mix of in-house and outsourced data helps improve data quality. *hint it still can.

And what about making use of social media?

Marketers are hesitant to create actionable insights from social media. The data is not as neat and tidy as with other data sets — those acquired through voluntarily filled-out forms or browser cookies, for example.

The current challenges largely relate to technology and budget deficiencies. Here are some of the other main challenges marketers say they face in using social to gather data:

Even two years ago, the majority of marketing executives still didn’t think that data derived from social media could be trusted, and a healthy segment didn’t know what to think.


Maximizing the actionable insights you receive from your analytics investments is important to your data-driven success. Brent Dykes writing for Forbes

In a 2016 Forbes article titled “Actionable Insights: The Missing Link Between Data And Business Value,” Brent Dykes attempts to save “actionable insights” from the buzzword bargain bin by outlining key attributes to keep in mind when determining just how actionable your insights really are.

Alignment: Insights that align with your business goals are more likely to become actionable insights. Alignment gives the insight urgency and inspires action to take place.

Context: Insights require proper context or else they won’t be particularly useful. If July outperformed June, it’s important to acknowledge all the potential factors. July might sell more bottled water because of longer, hot days as well as the fact that an ad campaign just launched.

Relevance: If an insight is presented at the wrong time to the wrong people, it will not be actionable. Insights need to be communicated at the appropriate time in an accessible format for key players who can execute actions.

Specificity: Details are important in determining whether an insight is actionable or not. If a campaign is successful at increasing engagements, it’s important to understand why, or no action can be taken.

Novelty: Insights that offer new information are more valuable than ones that have been previously established. Novelty stands out and excites people into action.

Clarity: Explaining insights with clarity goes a long way towards creating action. Using the right data visualization, clear writing, and quality speaking and presentation can help make this possible. A lack of clarity means ideas can get lost easily and turn into background noise — like a band’s underwhelming second album or a guidance counselor’s career advice.

So, we go back to where we started: Data. Data isn’t only great, it’s crucial — but it simply isn’t enough on its own. Reporting data isn’t the same as analysis, by keeping these key distinctions and attributes in mind, it’ll be lights, camera, actionable insights in no time.


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