Data visualization: only a visualization tool or a data platform?

Rautatieläisenkatu 6, 00520 Helsinki, Finland

  • Juska Glán

Data visualization: only a visualization tool or a data platform?

Updated: Feb 14

Having and accessing data are two different things. Understanding and using are yes, yet again different. There are ‘easy pickings’ to achieve data-driven capabilities with data visualization.


In this blog, we’ll go through the differences in visualization tools and data platforms. Do you know the differences between these two? After the blog, you understand the (humongous) distinction.


Important: both solutions have their places in the marketer’s tool packs. What you want to achieve is the deciding factor on which is more suitable for your needs.


I’m going to use Google Data Studio as an example visualization tool in this blog because it is a free and useful tool for marketers. With Data Studio marketers can visualize e.g. Google Analytics to understand the important metrics of websites.


Losing your data visualization tool expert


Let's take an example: your organization has built a visualization tool reporting or analytics stack with multiple other tools, paid connector tools et cetera, involved. You have the personnel or a team taking care of developing, distributing and maintaining the stack.


What happens when this expertise moves out from this position internally or even worse: exits the company? They are the only ones capable of maintaining the solution and have an understanding of the data. Visualization tools need a lot of attending an organizational level. For the expert, it's a really good tool in the toolbox but the company will always lose in case of experts' exit.


The second problem is the data. The analysis is mainly done and stored in an experts' head. Then it's distributed to a stakeholder and it's discussed. What if your business KPIs change and you want to align for example sales and marketing and you don't have the data at your disposal to prove your hypothesis.


Data platforms are made to establish a data management process for your company and give additional advantages to grow business value out of.

Using & storing your data


If you’re looking to start or develop your marketing operations with data-driven means: you need to store the data. If this conversation would be about cars, the visualization tool is merely a speedo-meter, data warehouse would be the engine, data the fuel, automated processes would be… Technical stuff – you’ll get the drill.

Data Studio includes connectors to Google’s other Marketing Platform services (Google Ads, Analytics, YouTube…) with easy connectivity. Additionally, there are connectors to services like Facebook and LinkedIn, often created by third parties as payable “add-ons”.


Here’s the deal: Google Data Studio doesn’t collect your data for you. Thus, your source systems act as decentralized data repositories. Full-blown jargon, yes. Imagine that your data expires in FB or filters are changed in Google Analytics. Your reporting and analytics are the first ones to suffer. In conclusion, your data is lost or ruined and the most important output is useless.

Visualization tools require data source connections to function. Most of the time they rely on the capabilities of the source system to store the data. Data platforms collect and stores your data for you to use.

Visualization tools are great, and you need a data visualization tool in the process of understanding the data. The problem is that these tools will not store and process your data. In essence, your company gets reports but not the advantages of data (which we’ll go through later).


Data Visualization & Data exploration


As businesses are getting more data-driven, one should aim to use valid information in business decisions and operations. Visualization tools give awesome possibilities to understand the data. For example, distributing information from Google Analytics to stakeholders has been made easy with Data Studio.


The actual data exploration is done in Google Analytics on Google’s case. This is counter-productive if you want to understand your marketing’s bigger picture from one view. Data consolidation (getting everything to work together) is a big part of understanding and analyzing your data.


Here comes the first perk of having your data gathered. The data platform collects all the data from your source systems. This is where data exploration magic should happen: in one centralized location. Imagine listening to a violin concerto but you would be able to hear only one player at the time; therefore understanding the play requires you to hear all the players at once as a unified group.


A visualization tool is essentially the final component of any powerful data platform. Therefore without the data platform’s data warehouse, you are just reporting your actions. Would you like to know what is done and/or what should be done?


Of course, this boils down to the point of building the visualizations: would you like to build dashboards manually piece-by-piece or have a scalable solution to do it automatically?


Connectivity


Google Data Studio (or Tableau, Qlik, Power BI…) has been growing as the easiest way to start data visualization (Excel’s Pivot Tables never forget). You need to have a connection to a service.


For example, Data Studio has ready-made connections to all its own products and additional connections to e.g. social media. These connections are usually built by third-party providers.


This spawns the problem of not having the data: you’ll either rely on source systems data or already have an external data system to process the data. For example, Facebook acts as a data source and temporary data warehouse, and then third party provides you the connection to Data Studio: who takes care of the technical entity? Most likely someone from your company with an emerging headache.


If manual reporting for a couple of stakeholders from one channel is enough, then connectivity (or lack of it) is not that crucial. The number of channels in your marketing mix correlates directly with the complexity of your work.

Strategical & Operational Capabilities


Data is an asset for a business. Information can be stored, measured and optimized. Visualizations are the best way to understand and tell the story of data. The aspects to present visually are trends, functioning/to-be-developed operations, results on Omni- & multichannel level and ROI.


Doing business with data. That’s the present. The visualization is a way to give comprehension from the business for stakeholders. Visualization tools are incremental for this. Telling stories and insights with data requires visual tools.


BUT. How you can understand your overall business at the strategical or operational level if you don’t have your data in one place? How can experts work efficiently and lead organizations to success if the data can’t be used to develop solutions from data and understanding the data is near impossible? They can’t.


I’m going to cite Google’s research: 2/3 of leading marketers say that the decisions made based on data are superior. Who are we to argue with that?

Scalability


If you decide to have a dashboard solution or a data platform as custom-built (internally or externally), you’re committing to important stakeholders. What if something happens: your expert leaves the company, the solution needs serious updates or development? I don’t mean to scare, but that should be scary for businesses. The technical commitment shouldn’t be a burden.


Consider if you’re going to have special needs from your dashboard solution. You might want to understand your marketing qualified leads’ flow related to actualized sales with visualized funnels. Or if you have to add a new customer, campaign, channel, market or brand and you have to everything manually whereas data platforms' capabilities to scale your service further in an instance.


Visualizing tools might have the possibility to build these custom solutions. It might be a bit hard and you might need consultancy or a dev-guy with a barrel full of steaming coffee, durable nerves and technological mastery - what if this expert leaves?


Data-platform solutions and their experts provide a solution for your needs based on your data. Therefore, expertise is important to have when evaluating the business viability of the idea.

Over to you


Why should you care about data? First of all: the leaders using data & analytics are already reaping the benefits with their actions.


How to get into the wagon? If you have a data warehouse built already: use a visualization tool to extract the right analysis from the data. Or if you want to just have reports made from one channel: you’re good to go with Google Data Studio.


Visualization tools are the good first step to utilize data (and the last step in the best solutions from a technical perspective).

The question is: do you want to be a data factory for other companies with your data or benefit from it yourself?

Hey – if you feel that this went over your head or need more information regarding your company’s needs: book a chat with me.

About the author. I’m quite passionate regarding marketing analytics & measurable marketing. In free time I print old Excel report-sheets & PDFs (paper is reutilized from recycle bin) and set them slowly to the fiery pit of my neighbors Weber. With permission of course.

You can connect & contact me on LinkedIn if you enjoyed the text or need sparring in marketing performance measurement & analytics