Who Needs Big Data?

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My, what big data you have!

You really can’t toss a marketing blogger without watching the term "big data" tumble out of their pockets these days. If there’s something – anything – that gets marketers all excited, it’s the notion of big data. The sad reality is that few of them (including me) actually have any semblance of an idea as to what the agreed upon definition of big data is, how it’s being used effectively and cases where it has made a significant impact on the overall economic value of a brand. In short, big data is like sex in high school: everyone’s talking about… few people are actually doing it.

Death to big data.

From my bird’s eye view, it feels like big data is being talked about in two ways:

  1. The potential. Imagine a world where you can understand behaviors and actions of consumers in ways you never could before. Imagine a world where you go beyond basic measurement like demographics and psychographics. Imagine a word where you know things about the consumer that they, themselves, probably don’t even know when it comes to their habits. Imagine a world where your data becomes three dimensional and you can slice and dice it in ways that were unimaginable before.
  2. The excuse. Without access to big data, we’re sunk. Everyone is using big data, so if we don’t have access to big data, we’re not going to be as smart as our competitors! If we only had access to big data, we could probably understand our business better and get improved results.

Big data is good.

The potential and the reality of big data is not something to graze over, forget about or dismiss. The power and potential is very real, but here’s the thing: data is just data. My good friend, Avinash Kaushik (Digital Marketing Evangelist for Google and author of Web Analytics – An Hour A Day and Web Analytics 2.0) often deflects the data and prefers to focus on the power of having the skills to pull the actionable insights out of the data into something that truly drives magnificent results. I’m with him. As far as we have come as an industry at getting better with the data and analytics we use, there is still a vast majority that are looking at the wrong data, making assumptions and taking actions that aren’t based on business strategy or better outcomes. Few understand the power of the data, the real-time web and what can be done with a focus on marketing optimization. If you’re struggling with what this looks like, check out Avinash’s blog Occam’s Razor (he goes way more in depth on what actionable insights can do over a data puke… as he calls it).

So, what now?

How about we start thinking about big insights instead of big data? More data and big data, is just that: more of stuff (and bigger stuff) that most professionals don’t understand. I sometimes worry that giving marketers access to big data is simply going to make their heads explode. What if we took a step back? What if we actually took a look at the data we’re capturing now, in real time, and better understand what it means and what we can do with it (this will force us down the road of doing the hard work of figuring out things like the lifetime value of a customer, a cost per acquisition strategy for a customer, and how performance-based media can drive tangible results). Think about it like this: we all get all excited about the features and functionality that comes with Microsoft Word (or whatever software we used for word processing), but the truth is that over ninety percent of us probably use only five percent of the features. Have we become so good at the analytics that we’re currently capturing to be able enough to graduate to the big data?

It’s not the wrong question.

In the coming months and years, big data is going to morph from theory and "would like to have" into access and information at all of our fingertips. If we’re challenged (as we currently are) to take the proper actions on what we’ve currently got, how can we expect to do more and be better with data sets that are of a size and magnitude that we can’t even imagine? Don’t look at big data as an excuse for what’s not working now or at the potential of what could be. Instead, re-focus on what you have, get your head into the weeds, study the analytics that you’re getting right now, today, uncover true actionable insights and act on it in as close-to-real-time as you can. Once you master that, big data will only open up many more doors and opportunities.

What’s your take on the current state of big data?


  1. Some comments from a Podcast fan in Sweden
    I think the area of BI has just matured in the area of customer intelligence. Things like churn predictability is just recently used by marketers around the world. BUT it’s still a left brain analytical thing that is given from BI to marketing. There is still no marketing tradition to turn data into executional knowledge.
    The problem with Big data is that it is still left brain analytics people/departments preparing for the value of the data. I heard very few marketing people knowing what data to harvest and why. I think there is a need for a totally new skill set in marketing departments in order to create value from this big fat data elephant.
    I am doing some consulting in the utilities area and everyone is talking about the big data tsunami, but no one focus on turning it into wave energy.

  2. Increasingly, marketing will be math. It always has been to some extent, but more than ever insights will be gleaned from data tables in addition to conversations. Those who can be data wizards and tease accurate insights from the numbers will win.
    If I were to hire a new marketing employee today he or she would be a statistician.

  3. Great post Mitch! Big Data is the new frontier and absolutely crucial, when individual industries and companies learn how to use it. It reminds me so much of CMO’s needing to be taught Web 2.0 and its importance, into the importance of Social Media for Brand, Interaction, Customer Service, etc. and finally onto Mobile. I am still absolutely shocked that websites, apps and mobile sites are still asking for email addresses with someone’s name rather than asking for a name and a mobile number for permission-based marketing. Cheers, Fraser @torontocoffee

  4. Mark,
    Seems it was only a few days ago that people will be recruiting journalists in the marketing department.
    I think there will be a huge shake out before things down.
    Even now, people are advocating writing a blog. Hardly anybody talks about educating,entertaining, making heads turn type of blogs. The kind of blogs you put out!

  5. I see great insight with your “software features” analogy to this situation. The data that exists NOW needs more correlation analysis, not searching for more data. Those obsessed with “big data having all the answers” may want to consider gathering all the data that exists on everyone that qualifies as a NON-CUSTOMER. Since we all know it’s less expensive to obtain new clients than it is to provide complete solutions & nurture current relationships, the “non-customer big data” folks might actually parallel the results of those researching the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.

  6. I agree with you, Mitch. But with all the talk about “big data” lately, I’m looking for “big insights.” There’s already more data than we can collect. Someone needs to start making sense of it, if only a bit at a time. Then we can get to the bigger stuff.

  7. On the same page with this, Mitch. I’ll actually add that many brands (particularly small / medium biz) should first start small. Forget big data for a minute and make sure you’re wringing every ounce of value out of free, at-your-fingertips data. Example I used in a recent blog post (below for reference) is the Insights available via YouTube. Great wealth of info that even breaks down viewers by age groups.

  8. I agree. I also feel like there should be a happy medium between “the potential” (which is honestly a little creepy to think about) and the excuse. Big data sounds good, but what else can we pull out of it to make more people happy with the brand? I’m not even sure I grasp the full meaning yet.
    I feel that rather than trying to find every single detail about everything that the consumer MIGHT be interested in, we need to focus on what we already know they like. Does that make sense?

  9. The sentiments of this thread are challenging the hype – I like it. there is so much value in the “ore” to be mined on existing data’; unless a business function can rationalize the additional investment – not just in the tools, but in the talent, and then meet / exceed expectations set during the sales cycle, big data this will be plunging into the “trough of disallusionment” faster than QR codes.

  10. Nate Silver was spot on re the Presidential elections. He became an overnight sensation.
    On the Academy Awards, Nate did not achieve the same degree of success.
    Analyzing big data, insights from big data is a tough ask.

  11. Interesting- 4 months later “..most businesses are terrible at small data. They don’t even know what they have now…”.

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