Secret Marketer: Big data won’t do your job for you

There’s no more terrifying phrase in marketing than ‘big data’, but once you start to understand it you realise adoption doesn’t have to be complicated and it won’t replace marketing expertise.

secret markerter

The two scariest words in the marketing lexicon are not ‘you’re fired’. They are in fact ‘big data’. Why? Because nobody really has a clue what it means or entails.

It sounds like one of those things that is going to be good. And, like any buzzword, it has spawned its own clichés: ‘data is the oil of the digital economy’ and ‘bits and bytes are the new Brent Crude’.

My favourite is ‘data gravity’ – a very stretched analogy to describe the phenomenon whereby the more data you have, the more suppliers and services are attracted to that data to make the product on which the data is created even more useful.

READ MORE: Brand strategy, data and customer experience are marketers’ new priorities

Finding ways to turn the flood of data into useful information for marketers is a growing challenge. It’s a two-sided challenge for me, because we are awash with data that can be useful for refining our offering in the market; and we can also take our data, wrap and pack it, and turn it into a product that others can buy.

I have set myself the challenge of understanding what big data is all about, aside from the hype, and it has been very interesting.

The first challenge is to capture and crunch the data, which means having to get new storage capabilities, computing capabilities and new analytics technologies and techniques.

Of course, our business has data ‘silos’, lots of legacy systems and different formats. I have found that you end up making compromises and replace what data you really want and care about with what you can easily get your hands on.

The biggest surprise for me was that much of the technology used under the heading of big data is actually open-source. This includes the database management systems designed to handle huge amounts of data, called Cassandra and Hadoop, as well as the business intelligence software designed to report, analyse and present data.

Don’t believe the phrase, ‘the data doesn’t lie’. For that, I refer readers to the cliché that predates the big data clichés – ‘garbage in, garbage out’.

The second challenge is deciding what to do with the data. Data software automates things that were previously done by people. The inclination is to use data, mathematical models and algorithms in place of a marketer’s own judgment.

If models are opinions expressed in mathematics, I found that there is a separation between these models, the algorithms and the real world of people. The messy complexities of the real world of marketing don’t always stack up.

Don’t believe the phrase, ‘the data doesn’t lie’. For that, I refer readers to the cliché that predates the big data clichés – ‘garbage in, garbage out’.

The third issue is that big data is prompting our company to rethink our basic assumptions about the relationship between marketing and IT — and their respective roles.

Just like the numerous discussions that I used to have about who was responsible for running the website a decade ago, now we are having the same discussion about which corner data sits in.

READ MORE: How marketers can use data to deliver on-brand promises in a targeted way

The final challenge is that many of the current big data marketing tools are really more primitive than you realise. Think of your own interests and internet habits and compare these with the real world of inappropriate ads and offers that get delivered to you while you surf.

In reality, marketing expertise is required both at the input stage – what you put into the big data ‘sausage machine’ – and when choosing what to do with the output.

The good news for those of us – including me – blinded by the buzzwords, is that it is not enough to be able to set up a big data programme. You also have to know when specific decisions and actions are required. And that readers is where marketers come back into the frame.

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