Digital Marketing
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The Buzz on Big Data

In a world that is becoming progressively digital, the term “big data” is becoming increasingly ubiquitous. In 2001, industry analyst Doug Laney articulated the widely accepted definition of big data as the 3 V’s: Velocity, Variety and Volume. Velocity refers to the unprecedented speed at which data is streamed, variety relates to the way in which data today comes in a range of formats and volume alludes to the sheer volume of incoming data online.


Indeed big data is so “big”, marketers simply can’t afford to ignore it. Big data is transforming our world and revolutionizing the landscape of marketing in the process. Big data presents both invaluable opportunities and advantages for marketers as well as obstacles. According to a study conducted by eMarketer, 61% of those surveyed claimed that big data is both an opportunity and an obstacle, and for many there is still a long way to go when it comes to harnessing big data and using it in the decision making process

Lets start with the benefits and opportunities of big data.

Big data offers invaluable customer insight which informs marketing decisions

Big data is rich with customer insight, providing marketers with a greater understanding and intuition for their customers. For example, Netflix, which boasts 33 million worldwide, looks at 30 million “plays” a day, 4 million ratings by subscribers, 3 million searches as well as the time of day when shows are watched and on what devices. As a result of this wealth of data, Netflix knows what shows people like to watch and that helps them predict and determine interest for a given show.

Moreover, the success story of the Netflix original “House of Cards” captures and embodies the sheer importance and effectiveness of how big data can be used to provide customer insight to predict consumer behavior. Through its database, Netflix already knew that Director David Fincher’s films were popular amongst subscribers. Moreover, films featuring actor Kevin Spacey had always performed well, as had the British version of “House of Cards.” Given this insight, Netflix was able to determine a Venn diagram intersection that inferred that buying the series would be a guaranteed success.


Image Source: The New York Times

Uses historic data to predict future interactions

Big data enables variable testing which helps predict what works, and what doesn’t. For example, multi-channel big data enables companies to predict what the impact of changing their traditional media spend will have on their digital business. Big data allows Marketers to predict what effect one less TV ad would have on online sales. Netflix is a company that is constantly testing. They regularly select a group of customers, typically by the tens of thousands, and use them as guinea pigs to determine what works, and what doesn’t.

Increases effectiveness of retargeting campaigns

Big data allows marketers to track online consumer behavior for retargeting purposes. In other words, big data enables marketers to serve ads specifically tailored to consumers based on their online behavior, whether it click-through or purchase activity. Moreover, the variety of user data available helps brands create micro segments and devise individual retargeting strategies accordingly. As such, brands are able to adapt their investment strategies for each segment and maximize their marketing ROI.

Despite the many opportunities that are presented with big data, it still has its limitations.

Big data doesn’t tell you what to do

According to the CEO of SumAll, “Data is very good at validating past activity or opening up new ideas,” however, “it won’t tell you where to go.” Many marketers assume they can just collect data and that it will inform what they are going to do. In reality, marketers still need to rely on people to interpret the big data and make the critical marketing decisions.

Lost in translation

In order to unleash the power of big data, one must first harness the data. Integrating large amounts of data from a variety of sources is no easy task. However, figuring out exactly how to translate and convert that information into more visits and fuller shopping carts – in real-time, customer-by-customer is even more difficult.

Issue of privacy

A discussion on big data is not complete without mention of the issue of privacy (or lack thereof). The case of how Target disclosed a teen girl’s pregnancy to her father shows how far retailers will go to search for more customer information and how consumers are being stripped of their privacy.

Big data offers companies and marketers an intimate glimpse into our personal lives, they know more about us than ever before. Marketers need to be sensitive to the privacy issue and acknowledge the fact that this is a real concern for customers. When it comes to retargeting, advertisers should delay ads so that retargeting isn’t so obvious. Marketers should master the art of subtlety when it comes to big data because failure to do so just might scare customers away.

Beyond big data

Whilst it is indeed true that big data presents countless opportunities and benefits for marketers, l believe we should not solely rely on big data and disregard human qualities such as intuition and instinct when it comes to marketing decisions.

Although I can’t deny the sheer value that big data offers for marketers, I believe data can never replace human insight, creativity and emotion. Humans are complex creatures. We are emotional, intuitive and we are not as logical as we like to think. Sometimes we don’t even know what we want. In the words of John Landgraf, the president and GM of FX networks, “Data can only tell you what people have liked before, not what they don’t know they are going to like in the future,” he said. According to Landgraf, a good programmer’s job is to find “the white spaces in our collective psyche that aren’t filled by an existing television show”. Such choices were made in a “black box” that “data can never penetrate”.

To succeed in the information age, I believe marketers should let the machines do the work where possible. The beauty of big data lies in its ability to enable marketers to build customer experiences and products that are based on hard data and evidence, instead of hunches and guesses. However, in order to truly take advantage of big data, we need to invest in (real) people too.

As we move forward into the digital age and as big data continues to play a greater role in marketing, we should not lose sight of the importance of human insight and instinct. Although society as a whole is becoming increasingly technologically savvy, lets not forget that, we are human, after all.


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