The Most Dangerous 4 Letters in 21st Century Marketing: Data

Being smart with data in 21st Century digital marketing requires ignoring 80% of the white noise and focusing only on the data and insights that matter.

By Thomas Donohoe, Founder & CEO, Level Agency and Author of The CEO’s Digital Marketing Playbook


As digital marketers and executives, we need to only focus on the data, reports, and analytics that matter vs. vanity metrics and expensive SaaS platforms that make executives feel good but contribute very little in the way of actionable information.

Specifically, if a piece of technology or a cadre of data does not do at least one of the following things in digital marketing, it is a waste of your time and money:

  • Help your company better target your ideal client
  • Help reach and acquire your target customer for less money
  • Help optimize your cross-channel marketing mix for better overall ROI

You may be wondering why.

Who could possibly hate a shiny new piece of tech or more data? Let me explain…


Data is dangerous because it is the ultimate, lethal buzzword.

First, it commands near-ubiquity status as a pure and good thing.

Data is considered the universal must-have.

Have you ever heard any business professional say, “We need less data” or “We don’t need data for this project”?  No.  Never.

It is the professional version of the word love or happiness. Does anyone hate love or want less happiness? Of course not. When something is universally demanded, it becomes on every must-have list on every digital marketing project in the world.

Second, the word data has no real, granular meaning because it is so overused and misused, that it essentially becomes a worthless phrase if you’re not shooting for any tangible goals tied to data outcomes.

The word “data” is often void of an actual outcome in our business lives because it has become so widely used that you could basically replace it with the word “numbers” and it would mean the same thing.

When you combine a must-have marketing buzzword with a phrase that is now absent of a specific outcome, it means you’re going to be doing a bunch of “stuff” that is not tied to a larger strategy. This creates a perfect storm for wasting time and money on a thing that isn’t helping you move the needle in your business from a B2B marketing standpoint.


The importance of analytics in digital marketing.

The most common example of how the word “data” is dangerous can be seen within your company’s core marketing and sales reporting in terms of ad campaign performance.

At every company I’ve worked for and in (including my own), when it comes to the idea of data in sales and B2B marketing, this usually means you’re going to churn out a bunch of reports and excel spreadsheets that do not actually help you do anything better from a sales and marketing standpoint.

Want more examples? Click here to see data-driven marketing case studies for our clients at Level Agency.

The reports will not tell you how to do something faster or with a better outcome.


First, most corporate executives confuse the word analytics when they really mean reporting (often because they want to sound fancy), and they’re actually wrong in misusing the phrase in terms of their goals and business outcomes.

To recap, a report conveys the performance of a campaign whereas analytics tells a story. I would contend that performance is the greatest example of a simple, baseline metric that is essential for any marketing or sales goal. Unfortunately, it is very often not present or uses the wrong numbers with bad data.

The must-have element in running sales and marketing is measuring how a campaign or effort performed. Share on X


THE PROBLEM: Most CMO’s ignore a good, baseline performance report and instead focus on a fancier and less important thing which, using the correct term, is analytics.

Second, when business people and CMO’s say they need analytics, they actively shop for and get sold advanced analytics software when they don’t even have good baseline reporting to begin with. Baseline reporting is cheaper, easier to deploy and infinitely more important to have than advanced analytics.

So not only do people not know what they really need (a simple report that shows, in most cases, the cost per acquisition for marketing campaigns by line item vs. “analytics”), but they ignore the basics and try and get fancy with analytics.

Unfortunately, CMO’s do not get any meaningful benefit with the more advanced solution either.
Two good examples of fancy SaaS solutions that are much less valuable than having baseline performance reports but leapfrog in importance (and are orders of magnitude more expensive than creating baseline reports) are:

1) Lead scoring
2) BI tool implementations

Both of those things are worthless compared to baseline performance reports of an active campaign, to say nothing of how many months or years it takes to deploy these solutions at 5 or 6 figures in cost.

It’s akin to buying a car without an engine and worrying about the paint color or spending a lot of extra time and money on a stereo upgrade…and where the engine costs a fraction of the price.

I’m not saying a nice new paint job is bad nor is a great sounding radio, but without an engine, a car is as worthless as a marketing or sales campaign is without baseline reporting that shows total cost per acquisition by campaign/by channel.


Why is data so important in marketing?

Many companies ignore focusing on a simple, perhaps manual process of getting better insights into what is happening before the last click – and understanding how much those things cost and how valuable those actions were in the overall marketing funnel.

Another great example would be attribution models, which I broadly define as the attempt via analytics to more correctly determine what ad channel should be given credit for a sale or, rather, how much credit should be given versus relying on only “last click” understandings.

I have seen countless examples of teams who ignore nailing down these baseline elements and, instead, get sold on a fancier version of an attribution model that requires large amounts of money spent up-funnel with a super amazing interface built by expensive SaaS companies.


If that model isn’t a zero-sum game, it is a great example of data that is a waste of your time. Or if you can’t agree as a company on an attribution model that you will adopt when you did it manually – and in-house – before you ran out and bought an incredibly expensive platform, then you’ve made a huge mistake.

Are these fancier versions fun to look at? Sure. Do they make executives feel good that they are doing fancy things by tracking their customers well before the last click to purchase? Absolutely.

But it’s not actually useful to help a digital media buyer spend money better or help a company better deploy their ad budget than either a simple, manual attribution analysis OR ignoring attribution all together and just focus on doing better with last-click media buying.

Does this mean I’m against full-stack, best-in-class attribution models? No! My digital marketing agency is in this world to build things like this.

But to use data to actually help your company, you may just need better reporting. Not even better analytics, but rather good old-fashioned reporting.

What most companies really need today is more accurate data and reporting that focuses on either better targeting your customers or better optimizing your digital marketing campaigns.


What should a digital marketing report contain and why does your marketing strategy need to be data driven?

Good digital marketing reporting should always include the following three elements:

Does this mean I’m against full-stack, best-in-class attribution models?  No!  My company is in this world to build things like this!  But to use data to actually help your company, you may just need better reporting.  Not even better analytics, but rather good old fashioned reporting.  What most companies really need is more accurate data and reporting that focuses on either better targeting your customers or better optimizing your digital marketing campaigns.

Good reporting should always include the following three elements:

1) Lead with the main Key Performance Indicator (KPI). Report on the single most important metric first. That will ensure that the most essential detail isn’t missed when measuring results as there is frequently the urge to over-report and show too much information. An important marketing KPI to measure against is the Cost Per Acquisition (CPA), which calculates the cost to acquire a new customer.

2) Pair data with analytics. In terms of marketing reporting, if you are not pulling in sales and customer data from your CRM (even if it’s manual) and marrying it up to your front-end budgets to see real results, you’re likely not looking at what is truly a KPI. Instead, you are looking at a vanity metric that won’t actually make your marketing operations better.

3) Marketing Automation. Automate your reporting as much as possible so that after you have built a simple report starting with your KPI’s, you don’t have to waste time compiling the same pieces of information together weekly. It can be as complex as hiring a firm that specializes in creating, building, launching and training your team on an advanced BI tool like Tableau, QlikSense or Power BI or it can be a simple automation of marrying Excel spreadsheets together. You must get smarter with the time spent on combining disparate data sources together.

That’s it. Sometimes it’s less data, not more.

If you want to optimize your digital marketing campaigns, ignore the hailstorm of white noise in data and digital marketing and cover the basics first.

BONUS: Click here to snag a chapter from my book on what every digital marketing report needs.


(1) A report shows performance; analytics tell a story.

(2) In marketing and in data, fancy fails and simple wins.

I was recently a panelist at the digital marketing conference DigSouth 2019. Watch my video here to see the marketing pitfalls CMO’s need to avoid when consuming data in 21st-century marketing.


Thomas Donohoe is the CEO of Level Agency and the Author of The CEO’s Digital Marketing Playbook.
Donohoe is a digital marketer with over two decades of experience creating, executing and managing digital strategies to drive results for B2B clients. Thomas is a member of YPO, Young Entrepreneurs Council, and he is a Founding Member of EO Charleston. His award-winning agency is the recipient of the Top 10 Digital Marketing Agency in the Region, INC 500, Diamond Award for Outstanding CEO’s, Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and #1 Fastest Growing Company in the Region by Pittsburgh Times “Pittsburgh 100.” He has been featured on, TD Ameritrade, INC. Magazine, Sarder TV, Bold TV, AskMen, and Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

Interested in booking Tom as a digital marketing speaker? Hire Tom to speak here.