Big Data (noun): For the purposes of this article I am referring to “Big Data” as companies collecting data that has accrued over the years of its existence in an attempt to find significant customer behavioral insights.
How can the Hadron Collider potentially help us use and understand the benefits of Big Data? This month I wanted to explore the topic that has been creeping into marketing journalist’s headlines at a rapid pace. Big Data has been making a big noise of late and I decided to look into its potential applications (if any) and what it might mean for the future of marketing.
What I found was not all that surprising and actually turned out to be a lot of sermonizing from big IT companies or outlandish theories from journalists making bold claims as to how Big Data would change the face of marketing. And though these ideas are interesting, and part of me wants there to be real potential behind it, the reality is somewhat different.
The current state of big data
Big Data is not a recent phenomenon and has actually been around since the 1970’s. The market is currently valued at $4.8bn (as of 2012) and is growing rapidly. The amount of information created in 2011 was 1.6 trillion gigabytes and 90% of all time data has been made in the last two years.
The term itself is an attempt to put a “sexy” spin on it probably created by management consultants to scare-monger large enterprises and marketing agencies into outsourcing their data. In return you get overly complex software that can take giant amounts of data and turn it into pretty graphs. The value proposition is an alluring one– leverage pre-existing data and generate game-changing customer insights that will put you light years ahead of the competition. One good example I saw was Crunchbase (http://www.crunchbase.com/) which has recently come up with a software that makes running reports on huge amounts of data doable on basic hardware (the kind you would find in most SME’s rather than hiring football pitches of servers).
This all sounds great right? Well in actuality you must have the pre-requisites of human intuition and excellent critical thinking to generate anything meaningful. Graphs mean nothing unless thinking has gone into their construction and even then what do you do with them?
The kind of thinking we are talking about is probably best shown by physicists, astrologists and theoretical mathematicians. They begin with a hypothesis (a hunch) which you then apply to astronomical amounts of data and test,test,test. The chaps at the Hadron Collider did not run real time analysis on the several hundred million molecular collisions occurring every second , kick back, make a spreadsheet and have a “eureka!” moment. You really need to know exactly what you’re looking for before you start (ok so the Hadron physicists were looking for a needle in a haystack the size of Texas without ever having seen the needle before. Marketers looking for these insights will not necessarily have any idea the shape or nature of them when they begin analysis.)
But where does this apply to marketing?
The divide between the techies and the creative minds is notorious and perhaps one of the best examples of this is John Hegarty. He gives the example of the Tesco horsemeat scandal as a reason Big Data is doomed to go nowhere. Tesco collect a huge range of customer behavior data from their transaction history recorded through loyalty cards, and yet end up serving them Seabiscuit in ready meals. He makes a good point, getting lost under tidal waves of data can make you lose sight of the bigger, more immediate picture.
The Matrix theory
At the opposite end of the spectrum to Sir Hegarty are those who predict an Orwellian future for marketing: that the level of competence with automated marketing will reach a point that will dehumanize the whole experience. Whilst it’s true that there are commonly automated functions in marketing (such as remarketing), this dystopian view of data and automation is ridiculous. Firstly it completely negates the idea that customers are capable of choosing which website/shop/television they want. Customers are tuned in to the technological advancements around them; they are smart and expect brands to do them the courtesy of delivering excellent content/products/services/etc. Secondly remarketing requires constant monitoring and a good deal of input from a sentient being. The machines are not coming, people.
The real challenge will not be manipulating the data to deliver interesting content to the customer. To go back to what Sir Hegarty has always said it’s about “reaching the space between people’s ears”. I think the real point here is that spontaneity cannot be scripted and so those who hope to be able to create moments like the “Pregnant Man” poster by running massive data analysis will be sorely disappointed.
If this is too harsh on Big Data and we lower expectations to just being able to create algorithms from the data that can intuitively create fun and interesting remarketing ideas, it still will not have revolutionized anything. In fact there is a danger brands will lose touch with their customer by spamming emails and messages and generally delivering what you think is custom content but is actually just noise. It will end up driving people away from their website or social media sites denying themselves a chance to really engage.
Big Data: Big News or Big Con?
It’s clear Big Data is around to stay, at least for the medium term. As to being the “future of marketing” I cannot see that happening for a long time, if ever. If I walked into the Nike village with a fuel band on and it came up with a “Hi George, check out our new running shoes” because I go jogging it would irritate me. It’s a very shallow form of personalization. A better application of personal marketing is to offer people with decent running shoes, discounted fittings or newsletters of upcoming running events and deliver useful information and services to them.
What is crucial is brands must be very careful about how they use customer’s personal information. When it comes to putting the customer first nothing has changed and in fact it will become more important than ever to focus on them. It’s true that consumers will be looking for more individual approaches because that’s just the world we live in. However that works both ways and if the customer begins to engage with you more don’t be surprised at the higher cost of getting it wrong. Most likely this will result in a social media storm and forums lighting up with poor comments.
Marketers have been talking about building a rapport with the customer since the term of “consumer” fell out of fashion. Perhaps Big Data will help with that, but at each stage of the process, if you are trying to use customer’s personal information, include them. Online forums in which customers and brands can barter for a decent return on divulging their personal information would work. There needs to be a lot more of this transparency rather than brands mercilessly collecting information and then blasting you with emails generated from your transaction history.
Closing thoughts then, Big Data – watch this spot, but not too closely.