What the Hell Is a Single Source of Truth? And Why Should Marketers Care?

Matt Hertig Alight Insights

“Single source of truth” — if you’ve spent any time in the world of marketing analytics, you might have heard the term and wondered what it means, exactly. 

Unlike a lot of the jargon floating around our industry, single source of truth is a pretty useful idea, one that allows marketers to see their performance more clearly and accurately than before. 

Oh, and it actually makes marketing analytics possible. That’s pretty important, right? 

Single Source of Truth: A Quick Definition

Single source of truth (or SSOT for short) is a concept that originally comes from the field of information systems. 

Roughly speaking, it’s a single place where an organization’s data is stored and, when necessary, edited or updated. That way, everyone in the organization is working from the same record, allowing for consistent, accurate reporting, analysis and decision-making across the entire organization.  

Having a single source of truth can be crucial for larger brands and agencies that might have multiple teams and divisions, located not just across the country but around the world, each of them generating their own data. 

To judge the effectiveness of your entire marketing investment, you have to have the ability to see all your performance results together, in one place. It’s one of the first and most important steps to creating actionable marketing insights and rapid reporting on campaign performance.  

Why Marketing Struggles to Create a Single Source of Truth 

Unfortunately, marketing has a tough time creating a single source of truth for several reasons: 

  • Multiple data sources. The average marketing team relies on several different platforms, services and marketing channels — potentially hundreds, in some cases. Each of those tools might have its own unique way of structuring the data it creates. Maybe it tracks one weird metric that nobody else does, or it formats dates using pig Latin. And that’s a major problem when you need to combine (or unify) the data from one source with data from all the other sources.
     
  • Massive amounts of data. And holy cow, do marketing tools generate massive amounts of data. To be useful, that data needs to be collected (or aggregated, if you want to be fancy) and analyzed in a timely fashion. Automated reporting tools help, but it can still be a time-consuming chore to simply bring everything together, especially if, as in the example, the data isn’t set up so that it’s easy to unify.

  • Lack of time and expertise. Most marketing teams are busy with other projects — like actually creating and executing marketing strategy — and they don’t have the time or training to play amateur data wrangler.

“But, Matt,” I hear you say, “what about that fancy marketing analytics software all the young people are so jazzed about? Can’t I just buy some software?” 

A couple of points: 

  1. Nobody says “jazzed” anymore. I did once, during a staff meeting, and was heckled so badly that I started to tear up a little.
  2. There is software, sure, but marketing data is so idiosyncratic, so unwieldy, that software alone simply can’t bring all your data together in a way that’s useful for marketers.

Let’s talk about what can. 

How to Create a Single Source of Truth for Marketing Analytics 

Yes, you probably will need marketing analytics software at some point. Before you buy anything, though, your team should spend time developing a strategy for using your marketing data. 

Identify Your Most Important Questions

First, what questions do you want to answer? I always recommend that marketers think in terms of bottom-line impact. How is marketing creating value for the business in terms of leads, conversions and sales? And how efficiently are your various tactics, channels and campaigns delivering those results? 

Let’s say you oversee marketing for a credit union that wants to increase the number of new members opening accounts. Among other things, you’ll probably want to know how much marketing needs to spend in order to produce one lead. 

Find the Right KPIs for Each Question

Which KPIs will help you answer those questions? Everybody thinks they know what they should be looking at. Too often, though, we’re just tracking “vanity metrics” — big numbers that feel good, like impressions, but don’t tell us if our marketing is really making an impact on the bottom line. 

Metrics such as cost per conversion might be more meaningful for most campaigns, because it’ll give you the information you need to put your results in context and tell a larger performance story. In fact, for the credit union example above, cost per conversion is the KPI that will help you understand how much each lead costs in terms of marketing spend.   

(This blog post on the most important KPIs for digital marketing is a good starting point on this topic.) 

Inventory Your Data Sources and Reporting Needs

The next step is taking inventory of all the data sources you’ll need to track in order to produce those KPIs. A typical list might include Google Analytics, Google Ads and Facebook Ads, organic social platforms like Twitter or Instagram, an email service provider (ESP) like MailChimp or Constant Contact, a CRM like SalesForce or HubSpot, and so on.

It’s important to determine the frequency of how often you need to provide reporting. Many marketing and advertising agencies used to provide reporting on a monthly basis, and there are benefits to that approach. You can receive a broader view of performance that evens out any day-to-day swings. 

Our team recommends using marketing dashboards that are populated with datasets that are updated every day. This is especially useful for digital campaigns because you can spot problems with campaigns early and redirect spend as necessary, as quickly as possible.  

OK, Now You Can Buy Some Marketing Analytics Software

Now that you know what you’re trying to accomplish, you should set up a system for collecting, unifying and storing your marketing data. As part of that, you’ll probably need to invest in marketing analytics software.

There are several tools that can aggregate marketing, media and sales data, but marketers need to be careful to pick a solution that’s right for their unique situation. 

For example, a lot of basic, entry-level automation tools can easily connect to major data sources like Google Analytics or Facebook Ads. But they might not integrate with all the sources that you need to produce insights and reporting, like the call-tracking service that your business depends on.

To create a single source of truth, you’ll need the ability to create unified datasets. Some software can make it easier to do this, but you will almost always need a person, either a staff member or a consultant, who has the ability to create data rules and custom dimensions in your datasets. 

And finally, your marketing analytics tool should store all your aggregated, unified data in a place where others on your team can access that data for reporting or analysis without giving them the ability to edit or corrupt the data. 

There are a few options for storage, but we recommend creating a data warehouse, ideally on a cloud-based service like Amazon Redshift or Google BigQuery. A data warehouse makes it easy to share data across multiple teams or divisions, something that’s very desirable for larger enterprises, while maintaining a measure of control over what’s part of the official record. 

Data warehouses are also built to carry massive amounts of data — perfect for larger entities with a worldwide presence or those who need years’ worth of data so they can create media mix models and produce predictive analytics.  

(We’ve written about data warehouses for marketing before. Check out our guide here!

Single Source, Multiple Benefits 

And that’s a high-level view of what a single source of truth can do for marketing. By bringing all your marketing, media and sales data together as one, you’ll make it possible to produce reporting for entire channels and campaigns. Because you’re storing large amounts of historical data in well-structured datasets, you’re laying a foundation for complex analysis involving predictive and attribution. It’s a single source with multiple benefits. 

Need Help Creating a Single Source of Truth? 

Alight Analytics offers a suite of next-generation solutions that create a single source of truth for marketers, including automated data aggregation, data support and a data warehouse fully managed by Alight’s team. Learn more here.