March 13, 2013 10:46 PM

Who Needs Big Data?

My, what big data you have!

You really can't toss a marketing blogger without watching the term "big data" tumble out of their pockets these days. If there's something - anything - that gets marketers all excited, it's the notion of big data. The sad reality is that few of them (including me) actually have any semblance of an idea as to what the agreed upon definition of big data is, how it's being used effectively and cases where it has made a significant impact on the overall economic value of a brand. In short, big data is like sex in high school: everyone's talking about... few people are actually doing it.

Death to big data.

From my bird's eye view, it feels like big data is being talked about in two ways:

  1. The potential. Imagine a world where you can understand behaviors and actions of consumers in ways you never could before. Imagine a world where you go beyond basic measurement like demographics and psychographics. Imagine a word where you know things about the consumer that they, themselves, probably don't even know when it comes to their habits. Imagine a world where your data becomes three dimensional and you can slice and dice it in ways that were unimaginable before.
  2. The excuse. Without access to big data, we're sunk. Everyone is using big data, so if we don't have access to big data, we're not going to be as smart as our competitors! If we only had access to big data, we could probably understand our business better and get improved results.

Big data is good.

The potential and the reality of big data is not something to graze over, forget about or dismiss. The power and potential is very real, but here's the thing: data is just data. My good friend, Avinash Kaushik (Digital Marketing Evangelist for Google and author of Web Analytics - An Hour A Day and Web Analytics 2.0) often deflects the data and prefers to focus on the power of having the skills to pull the actionable insights out of the data into something that truly drives magnificent results. I'm with him. As far as we have come as an industry at getting better with the data and analytics we use, there is still a vast majority that are looking at the wrong data, making assumptions and taking actions that aren't based on business strategy or better outcomes. Few understand the power of the data, the real-time web and what can be done with a focus on marketing optimization. If you're struggling with what this looks like, check out Avinash's blog Occam's Razor (he goes way more in depth on what actionable insights can do over a data puke... as he calls it).

So, what now?

How about we start thinking about big insights instead of big data? More data and big data, is just that: more of stuff (and bigger stuff) that most professionals don't understand. I sometimes worry that giving marketers access to big data is simply going to make their heads explode. What if we took a step back? What if we actually took a look at the data we're capturing now, in real time, and better understand what it means and what we can do with it (this will force us down the road of doing the hard work of figuring out things like the lifetime value of a customer, a cost per acquisition strategy for a customer, and how performance-based media can drive tangible results). Think about it like this: we all get all excited about the features and functionality that comes with Microsoft Word (or whatever software we used for word processing), but the truth is that over ninety percent of us probably use only five percent of the features. Have we become so good at the analytics that we're currently capturing to be able enough to graduate to the big data?

It's not the wrong question.

In the coming months and years, big data is going to morph from theory and "would like to have" into access and information at all of our fingertips. If we're challenged (as we currently are) to take the proper actions on what we've currently got, how can we expect to do more and be better with data sets that are of a size and magnitude that we can't even imagine? Don't look at big data as an excuse for what's not working now or at the potential of what could be. Instead, re-focus on what you have, get your head into the weeds, study the analytics that you're getting right now, today, uncover true actionable insights and act on it in as close-to-real-time as you can. Once you master that, big data will only open up many more doors and opportunities.

What's your take on the current state of big data?