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Big Data & Marketing – Beware the 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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