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Big Data Dreams: A Wake-up Call

Big Data Dreams: A Wake-up Call Scot Wheeler
Following on the heels of “develop our social media strategy” and “develop our model for social media ROI”, the latest critical “to-do” item for digital marketing teams is “utilize big data”.

Like the two prior objectives mentioned above, digital marketing managers are feeling pressured to take action on an approach that has become prevalent in business and mainstream media, and that has resultantly reached the general attention of executive management, prompting them to whip-up a frenzy of activity to ensure that they’re keeping their company up with the latest digital trends.

All three of these digital marketing activities have true potential to drive more effective marketing. Unfortunately, for the first two, the sense of urgency and intensity surrounding their introduction in most organizations in combination with a persistent general oversimplification of the effort required to achieve them and a risk aversion that has spawned experiments rather than true investments has resulted in unrealistic expectations, disappointment at results, and a failure to fund the subsequent effort that would actually ultimately deliver the expected returns.

The Next Big Thing

The current interest in building a “Big Data” approach to marketing runs this same risk. The topic of “Big Data” is everywhere, with promises to revolutionize business. Unfortunately, the understanding of what “Big Data” really is and what harnessing it for a business will take are not quite as common. That gap between expectation and reality holds the risk for another set of disappointments following under-funded corporate experiments in the area.

To help organizations avoid the same half-started initiatives they’re now nursing under social media strategy and qualitatively informed digital communications planning, it is important that conversations about “big data” actually move away from the common terminology and the hype to address what's really exciting about them.

The Root of it All

What most managers are talking about when they say “big data” has nothing to do with the actual size of the datasets they are processing, nor does it have anything to do with the possibilities for real-time response (in marketing, operations and logistics) inherent in true big data systems. Most organizations do not have Petabytes of data to process, nor are they structured to respond in real time to what the analysis of any amount of data is telling them. Instead, most organizations have sales reports, and hundreds or thousands of Gigabytes of customer data for a CRM they haven’t yet utilized to full capacity or functionality in the 5 – 10 years they’ve had it. They typically take weeks, months or quarters to consider changes in strategy and tactics indicated by quantitative analysis of sales, operations or the market.

What these typical organizations are excited by when they discuss “Big Data” is the promise of better data-driven decision making. However, as the point about CRM above indicates, achieving this isn’t about getting more data and installing more technology to analyze that data. It is first about a change in organizational thinking and structure to more effectively apply the broad array of data sources already available for quicker and more flexible management decision making.

Getting Real

The benefit of the “big data” discussion is that executives and managers are once again turning their attention to all of those information systems they have lying about and asking how they can be utilized to more effectively and competitively drive the business. The threat is that without organizational change these same executives and managers will rush out to install even more systems incompletely instead of first optimizing the data that they already have at their disposal.

In two upcoming presentations, one at eMetrics Boston and the next at SxSWi (pending your vote for the session if you please!) I will address the two barriers that most firms will face in achieving a ‘Big Data’ vision.

First, they will not recognize that any sort of data-driven management, especially “Big Data”, means fundamental change in the way the business operates, from strategic planning to management decision making to the minutiae of operations. If they don’t recognize this, they can gather and analyze as much data as they like without seeing any business results. (See most “social media listening” initiatives as an example). If they do realize this, they may be threatened about where they fit into this new organization. Sr. Managers’ fear of personal obsolescence via innovation is the most common cause of (the slow and quiet) death of corporate initiatives. This will be the primary topic of the eMetrics presentation.

Second, organizations will frame effective “Big Data” initiative activity in terms of new technology implemented and the size of certain primary data sets as opposed to looking for the more effective integration of the “Broad Data” already available across their organization. They will also over-value achieving big data insights on their own, and will miss out on opportunities to find unique insights from shared data sources. This will be the topic of a SxSWi panel I will be moderating with the Executive Director of the Spiegel Digital & Database Research Center at Northwestern University, the Sr. Manager of Customer Engagement at United Airlines, the Sr. Analytics Manager at Dell, who will give insights into how to start with a “broad data” approach to build to “big data” dreams.

This post was originally published on The Critical Mass 'Experience Matters' blog.

Adjunct Professor in Digital Analytics, Statistics and Market Research at Northwestern University’s Medill Integrated Marketing Communications Masters Degree program. Founder and Managing Partner of Intelitecht Solutions, and Co-chair of the...

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