How Big Data will change Marketing (part 1)

Big data imageIf Big Data delivers what it promises, then the implications for Marketing – and indeed, all of business – will be profound. Before we can understand what these implications might be, we first need to understand what Big Data actually is.

The promise of the new oil

Big Data, we hear, is “…the new oil”. It is the next big thing, the new realm of business opportunity, the them thar hills in which gold can be found. With Big Data, we are told, we can see flu outbreaks before they happen, tell how the stock market is going to move today and discover that you are pregnant before your family does.

Big Data makes big promises. But many of these promises have been made before, with, for example, data warehousing (and the famous beer and diapers story). What is different this time, and what difference will it make?

Consultants and technology companies have been beating the Big Data drum for some time, but there is little consensus of what the term really means.  If, for example, I am trying to build a data centre to handle big data, then naturally my definition will reflect the size and complexity of the data to be handled.

I believe, however, that most of us with a business perspective need a definition which enables us to think about the value and uses to which Big Data might be put.  My stab at doing so is below, borrowing freely from excellent recent articles by Hung Lee (Big Data is Not ‘Lots of Data’) and Alex Cocotas of Business Insider.

Big Data is not (just) big data

What makes Big Data interesting is not the the size of the data sets (although these can be mind-bogglingly big). The value of Big Data is much more about the kinds of data which it embodies, and (particularly) the uses to which it can be put.

Big Data is unstructured data.

Big Data is not that which fits neatly into a relationship database or which can be categorised by tags (although it may well contain data of this type).  Big Data is a hybrid mashup of different kinds of data such as geolocation, contextual data, telemetry, life events, video, demography, social media and more.  It’s messy, complex and has fuzzy boundaries.

Big Data is behavioural, not attitudinal.

It is about what people do, not what they think. Big Data is not, for example, about focus group findings or survey results.

Big Data is about small interactions.

Big Data might include transaction information, such as what is in our shopping trolleys – but this is a known game and is only an adjunct to the important stuff. Important stuff?  What we do before we put things into our trolleys.  Where we have walked. Whom we have met.  What we do for fun. What the weather is like.  What we are wearing. What everyone else is doing. The TV channels we watch. You know: the small stuff we do all the time.

Big Data changes.  All the time.

Big Data is gathered continuously, in real-time, often from millions of dynamic sources. This means that at any time, we can only have a snap-shot of this continuing river of data. By the time we look at it, it’s already changed.

Big Data is online,  mobile and the real world.  

Big Data is credible because Google and Amazon and (a very few) others have been able to farm and use complex online customer behaviour data to make serious money. Now mobile is changing the game. Those of us with smart phones use them everywhere.  We use apps to help us in the physical world.  We use services like GPS and geolocation which note everywhere we go.   Now when we turn on our mobile phones, we create data about our behaviour in the physical world in ways comparable with the data we create online. What do we call this melange of online, mobile and physical information?  Big Data.

Big Data is informational debris.

Big Data is what we throw off when we do other things.  When we stop what we are doing to fill in a form, or have our picture taken or scan some stuff to get ourselves registered or updated – that is not Big Data. Or if it is, it is only a small part of it.  Big Data is what we leave behind us when we play games, or take pictures, or move house, or phone someone up, or browse around a shop, or go for a run or change the channel. It is a side effect.

That’s my shot at defining it.  Does this work for you? What have I missed or got wrong? Let me know.

If Big Data keeps its promises, the implications for all of business – but especially Marketing – are profound.  I will explore some of these implications in my next post.

This series of posts arose as a result of a panel discussion earlier this week at IQPC’s CMO Exchange event at St Albans.  I had the pleasure of sharing the platform with Paul Blacker of BT and Michael Woodburn of Capital One, and it was admirably chaired by my old chum Vincent Rousselet, CEO of the Strategic Planning Society.   Our conversation offered a good range of views on these questions. These opinions I express here, however, are entirely my own.

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