Have you ever had a shift in thinking that helped move your business forward? That's exactly what data visualization—the graphical representation of information—can offer you.
In his TED talk, The Beauty of Data Visualization, David McCandless says that data visualization gives us a second language—the language of the eye—for communicating information. When we combine the language of the eye with the language of the mind (words, numbers and concepts), we start speaking two languages simultaneously, each one enhancing the other. Not only does data visualization help us communicate information better, it also allows us to detect patterns, trends and correlations in our businesses that might otherwise go undetected.
For example, let's say you own a company that sells handmade jewelry online. You poll customers to cull information on their occupations, information you then plug into a visualization tool that can offer some quick insights into your company's target market. If the visualization tool reveals that most of your customers are corporate, for instance, you can use this insight to boost your design of conservative jewelry for the workplace and decrease your focus on your other jewelry designs. Without a visualization tool, however, you may not have readily gleaned these customer insights.
Data Visualization at Work
Powerhouse Factories, a small brand-building agency, uses Tableau Software, a product that allows companies to quickly analyze and visualize large chunks of data, to help clients better understand their data. As Reuters reported, Powerhouse specifically used the software to show a client how their Facebook messages were affecting sales and customer engagement.
Another small business mentioned by Reuters is Farmstead Table, a small restaurant that uses Swipely to keep track of customer data, such as birthdays, anniversaries, favorite meals and even the day and time they frequent the restaurant. The restaurant uses this information to create better engagement with their customers and increase loyalty.
Swipely recently announced a new software release with enhanced service intelligence features that allow restaurant owners to gauge information such as what customers say online about a repeat item on the menu, which server had the most success selling desserts, and who does the best job at turning a first-time customer into a repeat customer. This is customer engagement on steroids.
Choosing the Best Tool
There's no doubt that the right visualization tools can help small-business owners. While these tools have been mostly the domain of big business, there are now many free or moderately priced visualization tools available for smaller companies. Here are seven examples that could help you see things in a different light:
1. SizeUp is a free, online tool that can help you quickly determine how your business stacks up against your competition so you can make necessary changes. It helps you benchmark your business, map your competition and find the best places to advertise. It can also provide vital information to help you decide where to locate your business. For example, SizeUp's information intelligence recently revealed the top 10 best performing cities for floral retailers.
2. Tableau Software uses an easy drag-and-drop approach that will help you analyze your data and visualize it on the fly. You'll be able to see trends and outliers that you can't readily identify in spreadsheets and share them with others through email or online. (Watch this video to see the capabilities of this program.) Tableau Public is a free version that helps you convert your data into interactive graphs, dashboards or maps, and embed them on your website or blog to engage your customers.
3. Roambi Analytics delivers data visualization reports to your mobile devices so you can use the information on the go, wherever you are. The Spillers Group, which owns three family restaurants, integrated Roambi Analytics into its day-to-day operations. As a result, the company saw a drop of more than 10 percent in labor costs, saving thousands of dollars. Watch how owner Shane Spillers explains the benefits his company derived from using Roambi Analytics.
4. SumAll wants to turn "your data into dollars." Its program lets you see data on sales, site visits, followers and charges from a variety of different platforms such as eBay, Facebook, Google+ and PayPal so you can glean deep insights about your business. One of its case studies is Freaker USA, a small beverage insulator company that relies on social media to grow its business. "After signing up with SumAll, all of our most important information was displayed in a simple graph with deep insights," said founder Zach Crain. "Keeping track of sales and how many units I’ve sold, and comparing data week over week is incredibly easy to do now.”
5. QlikView is a self-service business intelligence software program that allows you to visualize your data and discover relationships and associations that can help you make smart decisions about your business. The program works on mobile platforms, so you can gather insights wherever you happen to be. Check out QlikView Personal Edition which is a free, full version of the business edition.
6. Visualize Free, as the name implies, is a free visualization program that allows you to upload your company data and turn it into an interactive dashboard or visual analysis tool. It helps reveal business insights you might not otherwise detect.
7. Google Charts offers a quick, simplified way to visualize data on your website. There's a large variety of chart types here. In this video, Michael Fink, product manager of Google Chart Tools, explains how to use these rich tools, which are available for free. You might also find the Google Visualization API discussion group helpful.
Remember, data and insights are not the same. You may be generating reports filled with data, but it's what you do with the information that will help you succeed.
Visualization tools give you the capability to sift through the data and see it with new eyes. Do you see trends that tell you where you can cut costs, improve operational processes or grow your business? Used effectively, these tools can guide you from where you are now to where you could go. What will you discover?
If you're looking for helpful ideas on data visualization, try visiting The HBR Insight Center, which is dedicated to emerging thinking around this topic.
Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.
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