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5 reasons I hate big data


How do you leverage big data? How do you manage big data? How do you make big data actionable? How do you protect big data? Thank heavens we now have a large and growing number of conferences to help us navigate these difficult questions around the newest and shiniest object in the digital marketing world!

5 reasons I hate big data

Please don't misunderstand. I don't hate all data. I like data a lot. (Somewhere the 30-year-old Chris just passed out.) I just don't like "big data." I'm writing here specifically as an email marketer, though there are any number of reasons for other types of marketers to hate it too.

What follows is my list of the reasons why I hate big data. I encourage you to add your own in the comments section.

It's not a new idea; it just has a new name

"So how do you make your email more relevant? The best way to do so is to know your customer, wherever she is. Time and again we've seen that companies that integrate data more broadly across all marketing channels -- or at least all online channels -- also analyze data more completely. Integration enables marketers to drive more relevant communications because they will be able to deliver a customer experience that more closely matches their needs."

That sounds like someone describing the value of using big data to improve the relevancy of email marketing, doesn't it? Except I wrote that in a column back in April 2007 -- that's six years ago! And I wasn't the only person writing about integrating increasing amounts of customer data to gain insights to fuse into your marketing communications.

The problem is that back then no one (me included) coined a catch phrase for the practice. My friend Nick Fugaro, CEO of Vivastream, would tell me, "You botched it!"

It's like teenagers and sex

I first made this comparison more than 10 years ago when CRM was the flavor of the week. It is true again today with regard to big data:

a. Everybody's talking about it.
b. Everybody thinks everyone else is doing it.
c. Most of those who claim to be doing it aren't doing it.
d. Those who are doing it aren't doing it very well.

The major difference between teenagers and marketers is that while both groups are convinced they need sex and big data respectively, teenagers as least know what sex is! Which leads me to the next reason why I hate big data...

It makes something easy sound complex

Bill Cosby has a great bit about Noah and the Ark. In it, God tells Noah that he needs him to build an ark and to make it 300 cubits by 80 cubits by 30 cubits. And all Noah can think about is "What's an ark?" and "What's a cubit?" God needed Noah to build a big boat, but suddenly it has become a much more difficult project. Not even God is certain what a cubit is!

One can imagine a similar conversation between a CMO and Noah, his VP of marketing: "Noah, I want you to build me an email marketing database and go out and fill it with big data." Assuming Noah has the nerve to ask his boss what exactly big data is, I'm not so sure the boss would be able to explain it any better than God could tell Noah what a cubit is.

Fusing insights from data into your email marketing campaigns isn't that hard. Whether it's simple demographic data or more sophisticated things like product recommendations based on purchase history, these type of activities have been going on for some time among leading email marketers. When you start referring to it as "big data," it suddenly begins to sound like you need to boil the ocean to start using data more effectively in your email marketing.

It's another example of Marriott's Law

Nothing slows down progress like a good dose of hype! Marriott's Law (I named it after myself!) states: The degree of hype surrounding a new digital tactic is inversely proportional to its effectiveness in driving sales and ROI. There's a reason for this. When something like big data (or social and mobile before big data) bursts on to the digital marketing stage, everyone stops to look. And then there are the new conferences, featuring the subject matter experts who might have been selling aluminum siding the week before. And the venture-backed startups.

In such a hyped environment, results sometimes cease to matter in the short term. Victory is declared simply by doing "it" -- whatever the "it" of the moment is. Accountability is just going to slow things down! In the meantime, tactics that are out of the spotlight are even more closely scrutinized for their performance. If they aren't seen to be driving sales and ROI, they will be seen as a source of funding for the new bright and shiny object. This is particularly ironic for email marketers who, as I've mentioned, were doing big data before it was called "big data."

We're only getting one side of the story

When my friend Drew Ianni did the programming for the ad:tech conferences, he and I created a "Thunderdome" session pitting social and mobile and email marketers against one another. "Three men (or women) go in. One comes out." This proved a very popular event because, at the time, every other mobile or social session was about how each given discipline was going to change everything for the better.

Our session forced advocates to defend these emerging channels against the all-time champion, email marketing. Marketing budgets are generally a zero-sum game. Spending money here means taking some from there. So it is always good to hear about both the benefits and the drawbacks of some emerging trend. (If you are programming for some big data conference, send me a note -- you need a contrarian point of view.)


It's important that you realize that I am not attacking the underlying premise of big data. I'm a data-driven marketer and have long been an advocate for the underlying principles of big data. (They are the foundation of my Groundhog Day Theory of Marketing, in fact.)

I am merely making the point that the current frenzy surrounding the topic is not likely to have a positive impact on email marketing in the near term. Embracing big data as an all-or-nothing proposition will stall your progress. Stay focused on increasing your use of the data currently available to you. Your programs will be more relevant and hence profitable.

That's big.

Chris Marriott is the vice president of services and principal consultant at The Relevancy Group.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"A little boy in anger" and "Background with numbers" images via Shutterstock.

Chris is the President and Founder of Marketing Democracy, LLC. Marketing Democracy provides email marketers with a range of consulting services around vendor selection (RFPs), vendor migration, and email marketing optimization.  Clients...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Chris Marriott

2013, May 15

Hey Mike--I am a big fan of marketing automation when it is based on consumer-initiated triggers. In the world of email marketing it has begun to replace "blasts" with specific emails triggered by abandoned cart, browsing behavior or date of purchase. Again, it doesn't need big data to get started, however. Just smart technology and a smart team!

Katelyn--One reason we have so much data is that companies collect everything they can, whether its something they can use or not. The more data is better mentality is not always the right path to take.

Commenter: Katelyn Watson

2013, May 15

Yes we have always had data, but now we have more data than ever before, and it is not about just the data it is about the context in and around the data, and understanding how it all works together. Because there is so much more of it within the last several years around digital marketing apps, smartphones, and ad apis etc etc, there is just a lot more of it and it is more complex to find answers. It is no longer take your email segmentation and divide into 5 segments based on what they buy and wether they are male or female(which I agree a lot of marketers still are not doing). It is what they buy, what are their demos and behaviors online, who their friends are, and who their friends friends are, are they an influencer, what is the bets time to talk to them, etc etc...this is very hard for any human to make anything of which is why companies are creating entire models and solutions around this, and why it finally got the name. I too was super annoyed by it until I started working for a data company and realized, it is all about putting it all together to see the full picture, which most marketing databases can not do!

Commenter: Mike Chornopesky

2013, May 15

Chris, now I'm wondering what your take is on Marketing Automation? It seems to use big data to create marketing solutions. Apparently it is the Future of Marketing. However, try as I might, I could only see it as glorified email marketing. What's that all about anyway?

Commenter: Chris Marriott

2013, May 15

Thanks for your comments Mike and Lysa! Love the "data envy" comment... no peeking!!

Commenter: Mike Chornopesky

2013, May 15

Actually it's a brilliant ploy. My theory is that the term Big Data was carefully chosen. First, it sounds like something new. This differentiates it from outdated concepts like, say, Data Mining or Customer Insight. But more importantly it preys upon the insecurities of executives who constantly worry that they're somehow inadequate. Of course they will now fret that their Data isn't Big enough. (Data Envy?)