Late last year, I told an interviewer, “You can have lots of data and still suck at marketing.” 

This statement still holds true as we head into the last quarter of 2016. 

Data isn’t a numbers game: Simply having more doesn’t mean you’re better off than the next guy. The key to being successful with data in marketing is how you understand, manage and activate it. 

1. Know Your Available Data

For marketers to execute data-driven, customer-centric marketing, they must know the first-party data they have. 

Some ways to explore what data you have and where it lives include:

  • Inventory your digital data across websites, mobile applications and media programs to see what’s available. For the former, internal colleagues are your best resource. For the latter, you may need to speak to your agency or other media partners to ensure you’re getting ready and complete access to media data.
  • Talk to your CRM team to see what’s in your database(s). Your organization is likely sitting on a whole host of valuable data about customers that you could apply in your digital marketing efforts.
  • Find any holes or missed opportunities in your tagging. For instance, adding tags to untagged website pages and device data, especially in a cookie-less context, can provide a more complete picture of your users’ behavior.

2. Layer On Data Sources

First-party data is your most valuable asset and is great for tactics such as retargeting site visitors and reactivating lapsed customers. 

But first-party data doesn’t offer sufficient scale to prospect effectively — and you have to keep filling your funnel with the right kind of prospects to remain competitive and profitable over the long term. Second- and third-party data can help here. 

Second-party data, which merges your first-party data with insights from other brands’ first-party data, can tell you where your consumers are shopping when away from your website, and give deeper insights into your existing and prospective customers. 

Third-party data, that which a marketer gets from various outside sources to create consumer segments, provides more insight into behavior and intent data and gives you the opportunity to know and target audiences in unique or complementary ways.

3. Centralize Data Management

You’ll need a way to manage and segment all of the different data sources you're pulling in in order to 1) have a complete picture of users and 2) centrally manage their experience across channels, formats and devices. 

A data management platform can do just this, helping you unify your data sources, segment them into audiences of interest, analyze these audiences from a variety of angles and provide connection points into addressable environments.

4. Activate Your Audiences Across Channels

Here's where you bring your communication strategy to life, creating great, relevant experiences for your best prospects and customers through smart, responsive storytelling. 

But doing this in paid media is only half the equation. Instead, focus on these two things for best results: 1) integrated audience management and execution and, 2) converging your paid and owned communications. 

Integrated audience management and execution lets you instantly activate audiences in media across channels and devices, in one place rather than through multiple systems and creates a virtuous data feedback loop. Converging your paid and owned technologies lets you deliver more personalized content across all addressable touch points in a consumer’s purchase lifecycle. 

Imagine using the information about how a customer interacts with you in an email to instantly influence what you show that customer in a display ad the next time you see them. The technical capabilities are there today — it’s a matter of your organization’s willingness and ability to execute in a converged way.

5. Investigate Your Measurement Approach

If you’re not accurately measuring the impact of your marketing efforts, you will miss opportunities to maximize ROI, generate insights and make better business decisions over time. 

Last-touch attribution, where 100 percent credit for a user's action is given to the last marketing touch point a user interacts with, has been the status quo for measurement since the earliest days of digital advertising. But adoption of multi-touch attribution is finally on the rise. 

Multi-touch provides visibility into what led a customer to convert at all points — both online and off — on the road to purchase. Today, with sophisticated programmatic media management technologies, which pre-build linkages between multi-touch attribution vendors and the buying/optimization platforms, you can immediately understand the appropriate credit allocation to give advertising partners and act upon your learnings in every impression-level buying decision you make.

Making sense of data in marketing necessitates bringing people and technological processes together. The five areas above can’t be tackled overnight, but by starting the right conversations now, you will have a better handle on how to use data to meet your marketing and, more importantly, business goals over time.