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6 concrete ways brands are using big data

6 concrete ways brands are using big data Michael Estrin

This is the year of big data. At least, that's certainly how it feels when you read the trade press or listen to the chatter at industry conferences. Big data, after all, is supposed to revolutionize every industry, whether we're talking about medicine, finance, law, or even sports.

In digital, we're already seeing signs of the big data revolution. Programmatic buying, once a small, tech-centric corner of our space, is growing increasingly common. At the same time, marketers, are getting better and better at marrying their own in-house data with third-party providers so that the industry can finally deliver on one of digital's biggest promises -- the ability to take the right course of action, at the right time, with the right message, in the right channel. And then there's mobile, which many marketers see as the vital glue necessary to close the loop between digital and the physical world, and in the process, produce a reservoir of data that can personalize any experience.

6 concrete ways brands are using big data

It all sounds pretty good. But at the moment, a lot of what we hear about big data isn't exactly the day-to-day stuff of marketing. Right now, many marketers are still struggling to find concrete ways to use big data to their advantage. In fact, in a recent survey that polled 47 multinational brands with a combined ad spend of $35 billion annually, three quarters of the respondents said they were currently unprepared to take advantage of big data opportunities. About half the respondents said the biggest hold up was finding the employees with the right skill sets to leverage big data, but just as many advertisers confessed that they were drowning in big data overflow and were unable to cut through the noise.

Of course, it's hard to staff up or cut through the noise if your brand doesn't have a goal. After all, big data is just a tool; you have to figure out what you want to do with it. For that reason, we've put together a list of concrete examples that showcase what a variety of brands are doing right now with big data. Who knows, perhaps these examples from your peers will inspire the next great data-driven marketing idea.

Shutterstock shares what it knows

For three years running, Shutterstock has used the data from more than 350 million image downloads to highlight trends in global design. For example, searches for Instagram-esque filtered images were up 661 percent, which isn't all that surprising given Instagram's popularity. But what you probably didn't know is that in Brazil, searches for geometric patterns are on the rise, while here in the U.S. we're mostly on the lookout for business and technology images. It's all interesting information, and it's all presented in an infographic, a medium that Shutterstock says saw a 332 percent increase in searches last year.

While these kinds of insights do resonate with a wider audience, the team at Shutterstock says it's really about leveraging data to inspire and inform the brand's core users -- designers. Of course, it also reminds those users that the brand is a leader in stock images. After all, you don't get these kinds of credible insights without a lot of data, and in Shutterstock's case the brand sells three images every second, giving it a unique look into visual trends.

GE keeps it visual

When it comes to data visualization, it's hard to beat what GE does with its blog, which focuses on telling complex, data-driven stories through compelling visuals. The blog is divided into four broad categories: powering, curing, building, and moving -- each of which aligns with one of the brand's core missions. Here's just one example of how GE leverages data to tell compelling and relevant stories that resonate with a diverse audience of employees, customers, and the press.

If you think videos like this one are a tough act to beat, consider the fact that GE actually began doing data visualization back in 2009, long before big data had entered common use. The company's first project was a relatively simple chart that broke out causes of death by gender, age, and race. In today's infographic-driven world, a chart like that might not turn many heads, but back then it was a real breakthrough, according to Linda Boff, GE's executive director of global brand marketing.

So how did GE take its mountains of data and evolve them from simple charts to compelling videos? According to Boff, the key was experimentation.

"The power of a good story well told in any sort of medium cannot be overstated," Boff told the Harvard Business Review. "Data visualization has allowed us to do storytelling at its best. Experimentation is also key, getting in there, understanding a medium and a technique, and not being afraid to experiment with it and be open and collaborative. We have had data marathons with many universities where we've brought in students, given them a problem, and said, hey, let's work over the next couple of days to solve this. This is an open space. This fact is incredibly important. Open experimentation is a great way to bring to life challenges through vivid storytelling."

Avis Budget Group understands its customers

Know your customer. It's one of the oldest adages in marketing, and it's no surprise that brands are using big data to gain consumer insights.

"I've always believed the data will set you free, because it really empowers an organization to see where its strengths and opportunities are," Avis Budget Group CMO Jeannine Haas recently told Ad Age.

Gathering and analyzing data from two of the world's best known car rental brands has been at the heart of the company's strategy, and for the first time in the history of the car rental business, the brand's marketing team says it is able to put a lifetime value on a customer and tailor offers accordingly. Here's a quick, albeit somewhat technical, video explaining how Avis Budget Group gathered data from a variety of sources and turned it into an actionable database.

Sunny with a chance of big insights

Here's one for the B2B marketers out there. We tend to think of The Weather Company, the parent behind popular brands including the Weather Channel, WeatherFX, Weather Underground, and Intellicast, as a B2C brand that tells us if we need an umbrella. But The Weather Company is also a B2B powerhouse, thanks in large part to big data. Using 20 terabytes of data per day, The Weather Company is able to make a wide range of weather predictions that are valuable to all kinds of advertisers because, it turns out, the weather is actually a great predictor of human behavior.

If you sell soup, for example, The Weather Company can tell you when the sales are likely to jump because they know how cold it has to be for consumers to pick up a few extra cans. If you sell shampoo, The Weather Company can tell you when the humidity level is likely to rise, which means your ads for anti-frizz shampoo will be right on target.

"Weather is all around us and it impacts decisions we make on a daily basis," says Bryson Koehler, executive VP and CIO at the Weather Company. "It's the largest influencer in your life that you don't always pay attention to."

Down and dirty insights

How do you get people to share a brand that most users prefer to keep secret? If you're Pornhub, one of the web's most-trafficked adult entertainment sites, you take the highroad and share what you know through a data-driven blog called Insights (not quite safe for work). The idea is actually pretty simple. Pornhub has a lot of consumer data that, when leveraged, makes for good social fodder. In fact, Pornhub has even partnered with Buzzfeed to spread the word on select, but relevant, topics like which American states view the most gay porn and how extreme winter weather drives adult traffic. (See, there's that weather data at work again!)

Sure, it's not exactly rocket science, but Pornhub has turned its data into a marketing goldmine. In fact, Slate's Will Oremus recently wrote, "What's fascinating to me is how Pornhub has succeeded in parlaying its own traffic stats into an ongoing orgy of mainstream publicity. A Google News search for "Pornhub" (which I'd highly recommend over an actual Google search for "Pornhub," especially if you're at work) turns up a steady stream of articles and blog posts about who's watching porn when, where, why, and for how long."

Data is just a new word for stats at the NBA

Statistics have always been a big part of sports, so it's not surprising to see the NBA turning to big data to give fans a deeper, and decidedly digital, connection to the game. Using six overhead cameras and tracking software known as SportVU, the NBA is able to tell fans who the fast players are in game settings and exactly how many rebounding opportunities a player had per game. And best of all, the data is available in a public database, which means fans can sort the data themselves to create and share their own insights. Of course, the NBA has also said that it plans to provide feeds from its SportVU system to media partners like ESPN. But regardless of who uses the data, the NBA's new data-centric approach is something sports writers say will change the future of the game for the better.

"We are really setting out on a journey," Steve Hellmuth, NBA EVP of operations and technology, told AdWeek. "We want statistics that visualize the game and lead to a greater understanding of it. We want fans to make the new stats a part of their lexicon."

Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet. Follow Michael Estrin at @mestrin.

"Business plan image with collage hand drawings" image via Shutterstock.

Michael Estrin is freelance writer. He contributes regularly to iMedia, Bankrate.com, and California Lawyer Magazine. But you can also find his byline across the Web (and sometimes in print) at Digiday, Fast...

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