Embracing Big Data

Few topics have created as much buzz recently as big data.

As a marketing professional, are you confident in your understanding of the communication implications of big data? Have you clearly defined your role in advising clients and executives on how to use data responsibly?

If you haven’t been paying attention, now’s the time—before armies of data analysts, statisticians and software vendors lock the doors to the C-suite boardroom behind them.

In case you have missed the major selling point of big data, to executives it spells big profits. According to a KPMG study last August, almost two-thirds of CFOs and CIOs in the Americas admitted they had changed their business strategy because of big data and analytics. The results were nearly the same in Asia/Pacific.

What’s the big deal? Certainly data points, and lots of them, have been around a long time. That part is not new. The difference is that we are now able to collect tons of even more data, and new, relatively inexpensive software can slice and dice information in ways undreamed of just a few years ago.

Cheap and plentiful data resources

Data, in the form of little computerized blips of activity, is everywhere. Its widespread availability is sparking the greatest information feeding frenzy since the invention of the Internet itself. Data is flowing from our smartphones, our credit card transactions, our cars and airline flights, our Fitbits, our Netflix viewing habits and more. It’s harvested from our social media and web clickstreams, from server logs, sensors and geolocation devices.

And data collection is relatively cheap. About US$375,000 will buy a Petarack server, capable of holding a petabyte’s worth of data. How much is that, you ask? Well, one petabyte equals 1,073,741,824 megabytes (that’s over a billion). To put that in simpler terms, there are 1,024 megabtyes in one gigabyte (1GB), which is what you might carry around on a cheap thumb drive in your pocket. But you’d have to carry 1,048,576 of those 1GB drives (over one million!) to add up to just one petabtye.

Now consider this: Walmart racks up over 2.5 petabytes of data every hour. Before you let that sink in, note that Facebook squirrels away more than 300 petabytes every day—five times what Walmart does.

Research from Wipro and the Economist Intelligence Unit outlines how well companies are actually using big data, and for what purposes.

But big data is not just for retailers. Government agencies, financial institutions, media and entertainment companies, healthcare providers—every industry is seizing opportunities when it comes to big data collection and analysis. The latest software permits companies to easily “make sense” of mounds of previously unstructured information; billions of scattered puzzle pieces suddenly come together in one place.

As a result, companies can know us, by our interactions and habits, like never before. Those of us in marketing communications are potentially able to tap into a motherlode of information to more efficiently target those we seek to reach.

Yet many troubling issues are emerging, such as how far can we take things with all this new-found knowledge. And what lines should not be crossed?

Growing concerns over the use (and misuse) of big data

These days, big data and Big Brother are frequently lumped together, with good reason: Many consumers are unnerved by the idea of companies (and governments) collecting and scrutinizing details about their lives—and where all this might lead.

Target, for example, was famously outed for its data collection practices a few years ago when a father found out his teenage daughter was pregnant through a series of highly targeted mailers coming to their house, cheerfully touting prenatal vitamins and baby formula. The mailers were sent based on other purchases the daughter had made that were part of a profile of newly pregnant women identified by Target data analysts. The company admitted that, yes, they are now two steps ahead of their customers in terms of deducing what they likely want or need next.

But for every cautionary tale, there are plenty of positive examples of big data projects at work to help reduce highway congestion, keep air traffic lanes safe, fight cancer and more.

What smart marketers are realizing is that the machines are outpacing us in terms of sheer computing capacity. Futurist Raymond Kurweil points out that our brains hold about 1.25 terabytes of functional memory each, meaning that it takes 800 of us to collectively pool a petabyte of stuff in our heads.

Yet while computers already store way more than we can, and can “analyze” things faster, it doesn’t mean they can out-think us. There is no algorithm for empathy, and no chip for insight and intuition—yet. And don’t forget, we still build the machines.

Bringing marketing to the big data table

Still, it pays to get up to speed on big data and become part of the conversation around the management table. The ability to understand how to collect data and responsibly apply the insights it provides will become two of the most critical, career-saving skills for marketers in the 21st century.

Here are some action steps to take on your big data journey:

  1. Learn. Start by researching what is happening broadly and specifically in your industry, and get to know key big data players. Data collection and analysis providers like Splunk, Hortonworks and Cloudera are happy to help educate you.
  2. Assess and educate. As you become more informed, discuss the ramifications of big data with your clients and management. Suggest co-leading an assessment on how ready your organization is to utilize big data, using something like the excellent and free self-assessment tool from Adobe Analytics. This will help you set attainable goals for bringing your business up to the industry average or propelling it to best in class.
  3. Guide communication. Finally, you must become a trusted resource to guide future communication programs involving big data. This may involve identifying organizational roles, preparing formal policies around the use of data and championing human reasoning throughout the process.

The challenge is to become a thoughtful, sought-after liaison—bridging the worlds of IT, management, outside stakeholders and, most important, your customers. It’s up to us to keep the human element front-and-center when it comes to the use of big data.

Brandon Uttley

Brandon Uttley

Brandon Uttley, APR, is principal of Brandon Uttley Consulting in Charlotte, North Carolina. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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