Integrating Data for Powerful Storytelling and Actionable Insights

Integrating Data for Better Storytelling

Insights Association and Olivetree Insights webinar series: “Insights, A Source of Strategic Leadership”

The amount of information floating around organizations from a plethora of sources – marketing research, big data, social listening, business intelligence – can be overwhelming. And decision makers may not have access to the same set of data sources or interpret them in the same way – meaning that they may hold very different perceptions of a category, key trends, and consumer target. This does not foster strategic business planning nor decision making!

This important topic was addressed by two corporate insights executives in the third session of a five part Insights Association and Olivetree Insights webinar series: ‘Insights, A Source of Strategic Leadership.’   The following is a recap of the key points from each presenter.

Cindy Casper, Managing Director, Constituent Knowledge and Insights, Arizona State University Enterprise Marketing Hub

Cindy kicked-off the webinar with her definition of an insight as “the capacity to gain an accurate and deep intuitive understanding of a person or thing.” With this in mind, she makes the important point that insights aren’t proprietary to marketing research; business intelligence, big data, digital analytics, AI, machine learning, user experience, and social listening are all important sources for understanding consumers.

Yet, she notes that in-house data/research providers often limit widespread access to data to avoid misinterpretation.  Through years of experience at multiple organization, she has learned that researchers can have more impact by sharing and integrating diverse types of information than by data hoarding.

She shared three lessons for integrating multiple sources of data:

  1. Tie data to an important outcome: Cindy shared a recent ASU project which involved using research and data to determine the impact of increased alumni affinity with the university on revenue.
  2. Learn the value of other data: The Marketing Enterprise Hub within ASU created a task force made up of the leaders of the teams involved in data collection and analysis to determine how best to blend data sources to overcome biases of each individual source. The task force looked at the expertise of each source/method; discussed the biases, strengths/weaknesses of the different sources. They created a framework for utilizing each data source – inductive/deductive; small ample/large sample/census; stated/observed/derived. (See the Periodic Table of Insights below)
  3. Create data exchanges and linkages: Cindy champions the insights department “becoming the currency” and not the gatekeeper. She acquired third party data for her team’s use and freely shared it with other university departments who were resource-constrained. This raw data, alumni segment assignments and predicted affinity scores, are now in a data warehouse for utilization across multiple units.

Various Sources of Data

One outcome of this combined effort was the creation of a new product, the Sun Devil Rewards App. Cindy’s team contributed qualitative and quantitative research; data analytics was used during beta testing; agile methods were used to work with alumni in co-creating app improvements; and predictive analytics allowed the team to identify the behavior of alumni that resulted in becoming more engaged contributors to the university.


Michelle Thevil McDonald, Senior Director of Consumer Insights at Clif Bar & Company

When Michelle became the leader of the Clif Bar insights team, she knew it would be important to transition from a team that simply hands over data to a team that leverages insights to drive strategy. To do this, she needed to find ways to increase the impact research had on the organization.

She noted that previous research projects were often of a tactical versus strategic nature; and that the team was not engaging in strategy discussions nor being invited to key meetings.  She and her team embarked on a discovery process to identify what was working and not working and the following presents some of her key learnings.

Like Cindy, Michelle understood the importance of connecting insights work to important business needs. So, she started by identifying one or two key projects that would best showcase the value of Insights when its focused more strategically. Her team uses four filters to identify key research projects:

  • Where is the opportunity for the biggest strategic impact?
  • Where is the opportunity to advance organizational learning the most?
  • Where can we reach the most important stakeholders?
  • Where can we reach the broadest audience?

These filters were so successful, they are now used for developing the annual learning agenda. In fact, Michelle found that her team could have the biggest impact during the annual business planning, so she focused most of her webinar presentation on how the insights team engagement in that process has evolved.

In the past, the annual planning process would kick-off with a series of detailed research presentations (e.g. annual tracking, Nielsen or IRI data, trend data, etc.) to immerse business partners in current  learnings.  Michelle noted two flaws in this approach:

  • By summarizing all the data, the insights team wasn’t creating focus
  • Each business team would interpret the findings differently, and present different stories about competitive and consumer landscapes in justifying their plans

To bring more focus to the planning process, the insights team now starts their presentations with the implications. What are the big so-what’s?  What do we want stakeholders to walk away knowing and taking action on?  From that starting point, the team focuses on what information best illustrates those points and builds the story to support them.

The team’s goal isn’t to summarize everything, but to make judgement calls about what is most important for stakeholders to learn.  Specifically, they look for information that:

  1. Adds dimension and clarity to current strategies. What does our success hinge on?
  2. Addresses mis-information or internal confusion. Where is there danger that the organization will go sideways, or different teams are moving in different directions?
  3. Seeks to identify where the organization can look further upstream. What should we know, but don’t?
  4. Raises provocative questions and questions sacred cows.

This new process allows her team to focus on big picture strategy versus getting bogged down in minutia. It made distilling a year’s worth of data much simpler, saving her team valuable time. And ultimately it made their work more impactful, bringing greater value to their stakeholders.

Michelle was able to judge their success through an increased demand for not just research, but the insights team’s perspective on learnings. And perhaps the greatest testament to their impact is the greater organizational excitement to learn about the consumer so that insights can be applied to improve strategies.

Improve the strategic focus and build an integrated intelligence library for your organization.  Attend Olivetree Insights’ Knowledge Harvest Workshop where experienced consultants can help you create your first integrated intelligence summary and provide a template for you to conduct your own future sessions.  Learn more, contact

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