27 January, 2017

Big Data Has No Role in Digital Marketing

Big data has a time and place, but not when it comes to digital marketing strategy.

6 minute read

I originally wrote this article for Mumbrella, which is where it was first published.

“As accurate, then, as big data can be while connecting millions of data points to generate correlations, big data is often compromised whenever humans act like, well, humans.”

That quote is from Martin Lindstrom, author of ‘Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends’. And I think he’s bang on the money.

According to the Advanced Performance Institute, humans generate the same amount of data every few minutes as they did between the beginning of time and the year 2000 combined.

As a result, the past few years has seen a data arms race amongst companies who are looking for a definitive competitive advantage. It’s a quest to find the golden data egg that will unlock the insights they need to inspire consumers and conquer competitors.

But I’m not convinced the proof is in the pudding.

My contention is that big data has a time and place, but when it comes to marketing strategy – and specifically digital strategy – it’s an ineffective change agent and a poor use of resources.


Big Data Is Too Big

In December 2015, the Economist Intelligence Unit surveyed 448 senior executives and professionals in the U.S. on the current state of marketing and sales analytics.

The resulting report found that the “common problem facing companies attempting to adopt a data-driven strategy is the lack of the right data at the right time … leading to being faced with difficult decisions at times when they might not have access to the information that they’d like.”

Big data allows for incredibly deep dives into strategic direction, brand positioning, customer engagement and even organisational structure.

What it doesn’t allow for is agility and true behavioural insights in relation to marketing efforts. We live in a fast-paced world, and by the time big data projects are completed, the landscape has often already shifted, making many insights obsolete.

When it comes to marketing, big data just doesn’t cut it. It’s a whale trying to manoeuver in a lap pool; it’s too big, too slow and likely to create a lot of frustration. That’s why I’m a huge proponent of small data – or agile data.

As Sherice Jacob, a conversion optimisation expert, so aptly put it: “What is small data revealing about our target markets that large data is ignoring?”


The Future of Data

In June 2016, Gartner surveyed 199 of their members about their investment in and use of data. The findings were telling:

  • 48% of surveyed companies invested in big data in 2016 (up 3% vs 2015)
  • The number of companies who plan to continue investing within the next two years fell from 31% to 25%
  • Only 15% of businesses reported deploying their data-related project to production

In short, I expect that companies are less likely to invest in big data moving forward because only a small percentage of them are actually implementing any of the strategies developed off the back of the insights and findings.

This is in line with a recent McKinsey study, which found that “companies struggle to roll out big data initiatives”.

By contrast, Forbes noted that market leaders create new business models and go-to-market strategies at nearly triple the rate of their peers globally. To sustain this incredible level of consistent change requires an ability to digest data at serious speed.

And if the market leaders are moving at triple the rate of their competitors, I can assure you they’re not just relying on big data to drive growth.

Just the analysis and findings for a big data project can take 6-12 months to complete – not to mention the challenges of implementation.

An agile project, by comparison, can take 3-4 weeks for analysis and findings, with implementation being on a far smaller but highly targeted scale. The result of this shift is measurable wins up to 12 times the frequency.

Now consider the top three benefits of investment into data, as cited by 1,189 professionals representing 82 different global enterprises:

  1. Increased efficiency
  2. Improved decision making
  3. Improved customer experience and engagement

If your competitors are churning out go-to-market strategies at triple your rate, they’re reaping all of those rewards and leaving you behind.

If you’re going to level the playing field, you have to be more nimble. Enter agile data.


Why Agile Data?

It’s important to note that the greatest insights don’t necessarily come from the biggest data sets. Agile data taps into behavioural patterns of consumers, giving almost real-time insight into what they’re doing and thinking. It does so through tracking behaviour in both natural and staged environments.

A natural environment would be when a customer isn’t aware they’re being monitored, including methods like analytics, heat maps, scroll maps, click maps, session recordings, form tracking, mouse movement analysis and A/B testing.

A staged environment would be a situation where the customer is aware of their involvement in data collection, and examples of this would include live website surveys, customer surveys, user testing, eye tracking and live chat.

These various agile data collection methods allow companies to keep their finger on the pulse of their consumer base. In turn, companies investing in agile data are able to be far more responsive to the needs of their consumers by making faster, data-driven decisions. Agile data allows you to meet consumers on their playing field.

It also has the wonderful byproduct of building a company culture that thrives on data-driven change.


Porque No Los Dos?

Now to be clear, I’m not writing big data off. To quote the girl from the Old El Paso ads:


Big data has carved out an important place in the marketing ecosystem. And whether we notice it or not, it plays a huge part in our everyday lives through the technology we use and the interactions we have. In an ideal world, you’d be actively collecting and utilising both big and agile data.

According to Carlos Fonseca, SVP marketing science at MetLife, “One of the powerful forces we need to react to and leverage is the demand for personalisation. You can only personalise products and services if you understand the consumer better than anybody else.”

To understand your consumer better than anyone else, you also need to understand that behaviours, expectations and entire industry landscapes change with enormous speed. So to remain in tune with consumers, you can’t simply rely on slower-moving big data projects.

My position is that while the war for big data continues to rage, you’d be smart to begin shifting some resources into agile projects.

All other things being equal, agile data will give you the tools to make critical marketing decisions at speed, providing a clear competitive advantage over those who are too slow to react to the needs and ever-changing trends amongst consumers.

To quote Martin Lindstrom again:

“In every big data study I mention to company executives there is a missing question: How might these findings be combined with small data to affect or transform a brand or business?”

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