Some Good Thinking

Do You Really Know Your Data?

Data is powerful, and it’s everywhere. Survey data, customer purchase history, email opens and clicks, web browsing behavior, location data from smartphone apps, social media profile data, and so much more. Companies use data to make decisions about which products to produce, what special discount offer to show a customer, and when to trigger their emails for maximum engagement and return on investment.

With the wide range of data available, how well do you really know and organize your data? And, more importantly, do you trust it?

Data integrity is a critical issue for any company using data in their marketing efforts, particularly when there are multiple data sources to pull from. Can you answer these questions?

  • Do you have a clear picture of the online and offline places your company is collecting information?
  • Do you know exactly what data is gathered from each place?
  • How is it flowing from one system to another? (Or, is it?)
  • Do you regularly check your data connections to make sure they are working?
  • What confidence level do you have that the data is correct?
  • What procedures do you have in place for regularly cleaning up your data?

The amount of data you have doesn’t matter if it’s inaccurate. While using data to customize the marketing experience for customers can boost your ROI, incorrect data can have the opposite effect and cause your engagement and ROI to drop. That is why data integrity is so important.

These five steps can help ensure data integrity for your organization.

1. Identify your data systems and map your data flow

How many different systems in your company hold data that you’re using for email marketing efforts? When you start counting them up, the answer might surprise you. You have your ESP (email service provider), of course, but you may also have an internal customer database or a CRM system plus data coming from your website. If it’s an e-commerce website, that’s a lot of possible data from one single source. What about those spreadsheets saved on your network? Or the separate spreadsheet on the office manager’s hard drive with notes about updated client information?

It’s important to document each place where data lives in your organization and how data gets from one place to another. For example, when a customer completes the email signup form on your website, does that information pass to the ESP only, or does it get recorded in your customer database as well? It’s great to have opt-ins recorded in both places, but are preference changes and opt-outs also recorded in both places? What information is passed between systems automatically (such as through an API call) and what information is uploaded manually?

We recommend documenting all of your data locations and data flows in one place. This will make it far easier to manage the data and monitor for any connection issues or internal process failures that might pop up.

2. Set up standard data formats and validation

A key component of data integrity is using consistent formats for data across systems. This is called data standardization, and it becomes vital when you use your data for direct mail and even for email personalization. That means, for example, always capitalizing first and last names and deciding as a company whether you want to spell out or abbreviate words like West, Avenue, Road and state names. What date format will you use for anniversaries, birthdays, start dates and the like? It may be wise to begin using standard drop-downs on your forms or requiring a specific format for data fields to prevent users from entering key data in different formats.

Another key component of data integrity for email marketing is validating email addresses, so consider coding your signup form so that it checks email addresses to avoid typos like instead of in the address.

If you’re manually uploading lists to get data into your email marketing system, it’s important to know some basic Excel functions to ensure clean, consistent data. For example, a file exported from your customer database might have names with inconsistent capitalization. But when you use a first name to personalize an email, you want to be sure you’re not shouting at that person using all caps. Depending on how your online form fields are set up, you may also need to separate the name field into separate columns for first and last name. In our next edition of Good Thinking, we’ll be share some specific Excel tricks for cleaning up your spreadsheets before uploads.

3. Decide on your “single source of truth”

If you have data in multiple systems, it’s important to identify which system will be considered the “single source of truth” and then build processes around that. If it’s your customer database, then new incoming information needs to first flow to your customer database and then out to other systems as needed. If it’s your ESP, then that’s the first place any new data goes. This might seem like an easy decision to make, but it’s not always. Be sure to talk through any existing data flows and identify what existing processes might need to change as you work to identify your primary system for data.

4. Put processes in place that support data integrity

You also need to develop processes that support data integrity and ensure that everyone in the company understands why it matters. That could mean changing how you train customer service representatives to take information over the phone, whether you have someone check manually entered data for accuracy, and documenting the exact steps you take to manually upload data to any system.

5. Schedule a regular data audit

Even with solid processes in place, mistakes happen. It could be human error during manual data entry or it could be a breakdown in how two systems communicate with each other, either of which can impact your data integrity. That’s why a regular data audit is the final step in ensuring data integrity for your organization.

The scope of your data audit will vary based on the number of systems and number of records your company has, but it’s a time to stop and check that data is flowing as you expect, processes are being followed, and overall your data looks clean. If there’s duplicate data, improperly formatted data, or other errors, this is the time to clean it up.

With a little upfront attention to detail for your data, you can customize and personalize the email marketing experience for your customers and make data-driven decisions with confidence.

Concerned about how your data is impacting your email marketing strategy? Email us at for assistance with any of your email strategy, creative or technology needs.