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Big Data & Marketing – It’s A Trap!

Embracing the “Big Data” wave before we understand where we’re going may be the biggest mistake that marketers will make since we were told sock puppets would make good company spokesmen.

There is a well-worn quote most often attributed to Danish physicist Niels Bohr that says “prediction is difficult, especially about the future”.   But make no mistake – the giant wave of Big Data is just about to break onto the enterprise marketing beach – and if we aren’t careful we are going fall into a trap.

Just a few waypoints along the journey thus far:

If you missed it – there’s a heated discussion (400+ comments and counting) over on the Harvard Business Review blog discussing the idea that Marketing Is Dead.  It’s not, of course, and neither is advertising for that matter.  But, one of the author’s main arguments is that CEOs have lost patience with marketing.  He cites a study that says 73% of CEOs said they felt that their marketing executives lack business credibility, and can’t prove their results.  Yeah, I really don’t see 75% of all businesses giving up their Marketing department because their CMOs can’t “prove their results”.  But, I digress.

IDC predicts that the market for Big Data technology and services is going to $16.9 billion by 2015.  Yikes-o-matic – that’s almost assuredly too big – but don’t confuse market size with how well one can use it (see above point).  Marketers already have a ton of data and apparently (he said with eyes rolling) we aren’t proving our right to sit at the adult table anyway.  So what makes anyone think that having a big pile of data is going to improve our ability to either ask the right question, or interpret the answers correctly?

And, finally, there’s this nugget of gold; declaring that marketing has already flunked the “Big Data Test.” The authors found that in a study of 800 marketers at Fortune 1000 companies, most still rely almost purely on intuition.  But among the few that are “data crazy”, most do it so poorly that it’s bordering on counter-productive.

Being The Change We Want To See

Now don’t get me wrong.  There are, no doubt, productive uses for Big Data analysis.  I’ve just returned from a conference where one of the panelists discussed how a financial services company analyzed the millions of customer service calls it receives monthly and scanned them for the mention of “life changing events” such as moving, marriage, new birth etc. By changing the metrics of the customer service reps to have them focus on quality of interaction, instead of speed of transaction, they found these customer service reps could engage consumers that mention these life events to discuss new products.  They identified hundreds of millions of dollars of opportunity through this effort.  Yup, that’s cool.

But make no mistake – this type of analysis is not what 99.99% of us will be focused on in the next few years.   As the study of the 800 Fortune 1000 marketers I mentioned above also found out, the most successful marketers had three key qualities;

  1. Comfort with ambiguity,
  2. Ability to ask strategic questions, and
  3. A focus on higher-order goals.

Just remember – while having A LOT of data might qualify as having a “big data” challenge, there’s a real difference between a lot of data, and a lot of statistically relevant data.  It’s kind of like owning a warehouse full of products versus being a hoarder.

It’s already common for us to use data we already have such as Web analytics, conversion metrics and testing analysis as a giant pool of opportunistic answers.  We dive in, looking for some golden needle that will tell us why something isn’t working.   Then, we find our “a-ha data” – and it’s just as often an incorrect conclusion.

As any good statistical analyst would tell you, it’s about using our expertise to form a key hypothesis and then testing it using the data we already have.   In short – Big Data is useless without some very good questions to ask.  And, because of the state most marketing departments find themselves in, they are not really prepared to ask the right questions yet.

Rather, our ability to change and adapt and filter out the noise that most Big Data will produce is what will determine our success over the next few years.  Our time will be better spent becoming powerful, high impact content producers – rising above the noise with creativity and using the data and technology we already have with more effectiveness and insightfulness.  To put it simply – why don’t we get really good at driving our speedboat before we jump into captaining the ocean liner.

As the Big Data wave washes over our business – we would do well to keep this in mind.  It will be very enticing for us to believe that just embracing Big Data Analysis will give us the magic pill that will produce exponential results.

But don’t fall for it.  It’s a trap.



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  • Kyle Dover (@Kyle_Dover)

    As a colleague of Robert’s, I routinely get the opportunity to see his thinking, but I especially liked this quote – “Big Data is useless without some very good questions to ask.”

    He also noted three qualities that many marketers see as essential for success – a comfort with ambiguity, the ability to ask strategic questions, and a focus on higher-order goals.

    I completely agree with his views and want to build on his ideas with two critical questions – what can you do to develop these qualities and what roadblocks must you overcome to use them?

    In my executive coaching practice, we associate these three qualities with what we call a “systems thinking” perspective. “Systems thinking” is the ability to see and engage the world dynamically – to see situations from multiple viewpoints, to recognize multiple interests, to manage conflict without bias, and to define value around purpose and interests. In short, “systems thinking” is seeing the world as a motion picture and not as a series of snapshots – and it’s the foundation for what most people consider strategic thinking.

    So, how do you develop these qualities? Following are a few steps you can use to get started.
    -look at critical situations from multiple viewpoints, especially from the views of the people you want to influence, and especially how they see that situation differently from you
    -look for how different viewpoints connect or conflict, and look for ways to build on connections and resolve conflicts
    -look at how people define their own purpose and contribution, and then look for how your capability can help achieve their goals

    Of course, marketing isn’t dead, but anytime you struggle to “prove” the results of your thinking, you WILL face roadblocks. I was reminded of this roadblock recently, when I remembered just how much “Big Data” the FBI had in August 2001. A then obscure agent in a remote field office sifted through a hundred “weak signals” and concluded that people were going to use airplanes in an attack. Her claims were roundly rejected, even scorned – but why?

    Following are common roadblocks and some steps you can take to overcome them.
    -you can’t “prove” it – you agree you can’t prove it, and then to ask the person what they need to see to determine VALIDITY
    -“you have the wrong conclusion” – you ask the person if it’s IMPORTANT and, if yes, ask them to help you find any flaws in your analysis or judgment
    -“no one wants to hear that” – you explain what you think the effects would be on critical interests, and then ask if the person is willing to accept the consequences of ignoring the risk

    Hopefully, these are a few ideas that can help you move forward and take advantage of all your Big Data!

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