How to choose the best business intelligence tools in 2021

Geoffrey Keating on December 15th 2020

You already capture tons of data from your customers — from your website, emails, social media, and more. (preferably with a customer data platform like Segment)

As much data as we have about our customers, though, we often utilize only a small percentage of it. Why? It’s hard to access and merge related data that exists across all our databases. Using the data you have will give you an advantage against your competitors.

With a business intelligence (BI) tool, you can finally put all that data to use.

Table of contents

What is a business intelligence tool?

A business intelligence tool is software that provides an interface to your data, giving you the ability to model, analyze, and report on disparate data easily.

Business intelligence software combines all your business data from your SaaS product, Google Analytics, CRM, and data warehouses — really, anywhere you collect data. From this software, you can answer complex questions that would be cumbersome to answer through a spreadsheet.

For example, you can identify a pattern of decreased sales of a product with a change in your marketing spend. Or maybe you’ll see that sales of one product in your lineup are cannibalizing sales of another.

Why use a business intelligence tool?

Having access to business insights is key to reaching your business goals. Eliminate the guesswork in determining strategy with a business intelligence solution.

Make better decisions

BI tools empower better decision-making capabilities by combining disparate datasets. You can draw clear conclusions about customer pain points and determine where you’re losing potential customers. Then, you can make appropriate changes to your product and strategy based on these findings.

Increase revenue

Predict behavior and figure out what information customers need at various stages by harnessing the power of big data. Since BI tools combine data from many sources, they excel at identifying trends in user behavior. Using these insights, you can engage with them more effectively and encourage them toward a conversion.

Increase efficiency

When you analyze large amounts of data in Excel spreadsheets, there’s room for error. If you leave off a symbol in a formula, you can make incorrect calculations and end up with false insights.

Organizing data via a spreadsheet also takes a lot of time, especially if you’re working with a large data set. First, you have to download spreadsheets from each individual data source — some of which can take several minutes, or even an hour, to gather and translate data into an Excel document. Then, you need to manually change header rows and update data formats, such as date, so it’s consistent across all data. Ultimately, you end up with several tabs to navigate and refer to. It’s difficult to find what you need.

BI tools can automate and visualize queries to save time and reduce errors so you can act on insights faster.

4 questions to ask before choosing a business intelligence tool

You need a business intelligence tool that will make data analysis easy and give you better insights. Each tool has different strengths. Keep these four questions top of mind so you can find the best option for your business.

1. What are you going to use the BI tool for?

Keep the problems you aim to solve top of mind so you don’t get swept away by shiny new features that might distract you from your primary use case.

Instead of looking at a product’s features, consider what parts of your current data analytics process need improvement. The tool you choose should make insights clearer. Think about the types of questions you need your BI tool to answer, and keep them top of mind as you compare your options.

2. Who is going to use the BI tool?

When implementing a business intelligence tool, think about who will be using and maintaining it.

Business intelligence tools are typically geared toward either business users or data teams. Some tools prioritize ease of use, while others enable data analysts to perform complex queries with code.

Business-user-focused tools (like Looker and Chartio) need some initial technical setup. After setup, fewer technical chops are needed on an ongoing basis. These tools allow a business stakeholder to build their own analyses without writing SQL. They feature a user-friendly interface, drag-and-drop queries, filtering, drill-downs, and computed fields.

Analyst-focused tools (like Sisense for Data Cloud Teams and Mode) are “code-first” data-exploration layers. Although business users can refresh existing reports, code is generally needed for the creation and customization of reports.

With analyst-focused tools, analytics teams are empowered to be data explorers instead of reactive database maintainers. With analyst-focused tools, your team will have the horsepower to run sophisticated ad hoc reporting when needed.

Some of these tools are adding more functionality for business users, but an expert SQL teammate is required to get the most value out of these BI platforms.

3. Does the data need to be able to transform?

For business-user-focused tools, the ability to transform data tends to be absent. Drag-and-drop features are more intuitive for business users, but you might run into issues if your data isn’t already clean.

A customer data platform, like Segment, is useful because it standardizes data as it collects it from your data sources. Then, your BI tool has clean data that’s ready to analyze.

If you want advanced analytics capabilities, analyst-focused tools support data transformation in SQL, Python, or R.

Get a Segment demo

4. Where does your data live?

Choose a tool that integrates with your data sources — whether your data is on-cloud or on-premises.

Most BI solutions can integrate with your data warehouse instead of individual data sources — but that means you’re working with historical data. If you need real-time analysis, make sure your BI tool integrates with the data sources it will need to collect real-time data from.

Even if the tool doesn’t integrate with all your connections, Segment can come in handy again here. Since Segment gathers data from your data sources for you — such as Salesforce, Google Analytics, Mailchimp, etc. — it builds and maintains these connections so you don’t have to.

Review the best business intelligence tools in 2021

Now that you know what you need from your business intelligence tool, consider your options. Bonus: all of these business intelligence platforms integrate with Segment so you can standardize your data, making it easier for your BI tool to do its job.

Looker

Looker is a self-service analytics platform geared toward business users. While it has a learning curve, it’s easy to use once your team is used to it. It will take a bit of work from your analytics team to get it up and running. It’s coded in a SQL-like language called LookML, so your team will need to learn a new language.

Once Looker is set up, it’s easy for business users to explore data without much training. Analysts will enjoy how LookML makes version control and debugging easy.

Top features:

  • Access, explore, and operationalize data using Looker's library of visualizations, or create your own.

  • Create a consistent set of data definitions in Looker using LookML.

  • Connect Looker to other best-of-breed solutions via the Looker R SDK.

  • Embed Looker dashboards publicly or privately.

Great for:

  • Company size: mid-market and enterprise companies

  • Role: business users with analysts to support

Tableau

Tableau is one of the most mature BI tools available, with robust data visualization and analytics features. Tableau has best-of-breed visualizations, making the data exploration accessible to business end users.

First-time users will need a good deal of initial training. After that, Tableau’s drag-and-drop interface allows users to create dashboards and in-depth analyses.

Top features:

  • Connect, query, and visualize your data without writing code.

  • Create robust, in-depth analyses or simple dashboards optimized for desktop, tablet, or phone.

  • Set up alerts and subscriptions for reports that can be shared across your organization.

Great for:

  • Company size: mid-market and enterprise companies

  • Role: business users with data analysts to support

Chartio

Chartio has a powerful, intuitive user interface that enables data discovery across the organization. Users can export reports to share with teams to get everyone on board with strategy. Chartio has top-tier customer support working directly with users to understand their data.

Analysts can switch to SQL mode to build custom queries. SQL mode can even auto-format, auto-complete, and identify errors.

Top features:

  • Use the intuitive user interface to discover new insights and share across the organization.

  • Write code quickly in SQL mode with auto-format, auto-complete, and error identification.

  • Export reports to share with your team.

  • Get support for your data analysis efforts with Data Advisors.

Ideal for:

  • Company size: small to mid-market companies

  • Role: business users

Sisense For Cloud Data Teams

Sisense for Cloud Data Teams (formerly Periscope) is a comprehensive tool that enables analysts to visualize intricate data models in SQL, Python, and R. Sisense bundles hosting, data connectors, and visualization layers all in one — great for data-driven teams without a lot of resources. The tool's data caching enables fast querying.

Additionally, Sisense enables business users to explore data and gain insights by offering insights in plain language. Business users can use templates to create easy-to-understand dashboards with templates.

Top features:

  • Run, save, and share analyses over billions of data rows in seconds.

  • Explore data and perform basic calculations and aggregations.

  • Create rich visualizations and share dashboards using a drag-and-drop interface.

  • Set up automatic, logic-based alerts to track anomalies in data.

Ideal for:

  • Company size: Small and medium-sized businesses

  • Role: analysts

IBM Cognos Analytics

IBM Cognos is an AI-powered, self-service BI tool that gives business users the ability to explore and visualize data without an analyst team to support. Machine learning allows users to ask questions in plain language to discover hidden insights. More experienced data analysts can run queries in SQL, R, and Python.

Top features:

  • Run complex queries on large volumes of data in SQL, R, and Python.

  • Ask plain-language questions to gain insights.

Ideal for:

  • Company size: mid-market to enterprise companies

  • Role: analyst-focused with business-user-friendly features

PopSQL

PopSQL is a flexible, modern SQL editor with a beautiful interface. With its focus on analysts, PopSQL has optimized the SQL editing experience so you can write code quickly.

PopSQL has organizational features for large teams, like metadata for your tables. Enhanced enterprise features like audit logs, teams, and on-premises options mean PopSQL scales with your team.

Top features:

  • Write SQL with auto-complete that is enriched by your data catalog.

  • Auto-refresh and send reports to keep stakeholders up to date on vital metrics.

  • Save common queries in a searchable library for reuse.

  • Track changes so you can revert to older versions if needed.

Ideal for:

  • Company size: small businesses to enterprise

  • Role: analysts

Re:dash

Re:dash is an analyst-focused BI tool with a powerful SQL query editor and collaboration tools. While you’ll need to know SQL to create queries, Re:dash dashboards are easy to understand for everyone across the organization. It’s relatively simple compared with the other options on this list and has a minimalist UI so you can focus on queries.

Top features:

  • Create queries in SQL and save snippets for reuse.

  • Share dashboards via a URL.

  • Schedule data refreshes so you have the latest information on your KPIs.

Ideal for:

  • Company size: small to enterprise

  • Role: analysts

Mode

Mode is an analyst-focused tool that’s easy to get up and running so you can move quickly. It lives online, so you can collaborate easily, and it offers the ability to query in SQL, Python, and R. With its HTML editor, Mode offers a customizable environment and the option to embed white-label analytics dashboards in your site.

Top features:

  • Query data using SQL, Python, and R.

  • Visualize data with interactive dashboards and share across the organization.

  • Integrate custom, interactive analytics into your application using White-Label Embeds.

Ideal for:

  • Company size: small and mid-market

  • Role: analysts

More options

While we reviewed only a few key analytics solutions in the ecosystem, there are many BI tools to choose from. If you’re on a budget, there are some free BI tools out there, like Google’s Data Studio, Microsoft Power BI, and the open-source analytics software Mprove.

For more information on the BI tools that Segment integrates with, check out our integrations catalog.


Get enhanced business intelligence with Segment

Segment is the industry-leading customer data platform to collect, standardize, and forward data to 300+ marketing and business analytics tools. It sits between your data sources and data utilization platforms (like your BI tools).

Segment enables high-performance teams to make data-driven decisions using a complete data toolkit. Sign up for a demo to learn how Segment can help you better understand your customers and engage with them effectively.

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