Where am I now? Where should I go next?
These two questions quickly embody the difference between two terms that are often spoken in the same breath in the burgeoning world of branded social media; Data Visualization and Analytics.
Terminology in any field is a ripe source for confusion and misunderstanding. We’ve all entered into an unfamiliar arena and been bombarded with a series of acronyms that users in the know throw around cavalierly, leaving the rest of us to make surreptitious Google searches while nodding along with glazed eyes.
A more nefarious problem is the usage of words we think we know to describe new products. In our field, the term “Analytics” gets used to describe a lot of things. Entire product suites are built around the concept, touting an ability to plumb the dark depths of social data and glean meaningful insights, placed neatly on visually appealing charts and graphs ready-made for your next presentation.
But are what most of these products offer truly Analytics?
In a sense; sure. If we, as a collective of brand managers, engineers, social gurus, product managers and other assorted members of the community decide that is what we’re calling Analytics, then come hell or high water that is what Analytics in our area will be.
In a more traditional sense; no. What most of these products offer is Data Visualization. They take the data that is available to those who know how to get it and make it presentation friendly and easier to digest by your average audience member. Certainly valuable, but it doesn’t provide any inherent analysis of the data.
Take an example from outside of the world of social media: maps. Opening Google Maps to display your current location is a great example of Data Visualization. Taking a single data point - your current latitude and longitude - Google can show you a detailed map of where you are currently standing and your surrounding area. You can see all of the roads around you, and if you have a destination in mind, you can use this tool to plot your own path.
But Google Maps also has an analytics component, because given a destination it can do the plotting for you. Drawing from a deeper set of data that isn’t easily visualized on a simple map, Google can offer you a suggestion for the best route to your destination.
Is it always the best possible route? Of course not. You may have some personal knowledge of your needs that can’t be communicated through a simple interface. The application will also never be operating on a complete set of data about the state of every road or every traffic block. What it does is take the data that it does have available and make a suggestion for how you can get to where you want to go.
This is the simple difference between data visualization and analytics. Visualization describes your present; analytics drive your future.