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Big Data or Big Disappointment?

My first corporate job out of college opened my eyes to the power of computing. I never dreamed how much data would become a cornerstone of today’s modern marketing.

In 1984, I was appointed the International Marketing and Sales Director for one of the world’s first PC software companies. Rick, my boss, gave me a Compaq Portable computer to take home and use. I enjoyed 256K of RAM and two floppy disks to store my treasure trove of documents and spreadsheets. I felt like a member of the technology elite.

Today, we operate in a whole new realm of data, and marketing leaders are sometimes drowning in it. In 2012, authors Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson reported in the Harvard Business Review that big data “server farms” transmit more information across the Internet every second than the total amount of data stored in the entire Internet in 1992.

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Big data has re-shaped how we view account reporting, lead scoring and customer loyalty—not to mention the CMO scope of responsibility. How did big data become top of mind for many corporate directors, and how will it impact today’s marketers?

First, let’s define it. Big data is the process of analyzing and implementing actionable intelligence that helps companies achieve new levels of efficiency, profit and customer relationships. Big data-driven decision making is different from traditional data analytics in three ways: the volume of data (analyzing petabytes of data at one time); velocity (such as dramatically reducing time to detect fraud); and variety (synthesizing customer information from a multitude of sources).

Big data initiatives promise to improve the customer experience and marketing ROI. For example, in product development, marketers can gather disparate data, such as voice, survey summaries, social media commentary and free-form commentary (also known as unstructured data). By organizing these data into groups, marketers can uncover themes. These themes help them discover unmet customer needs. Companies such as Vision Critical use big data to personalize customer interactions. They gather and manage surveys and peer-to-peer discussions for more than 600 customers and manage more than 2.5 million customer survey initiations per month.

In their Harvard Business Review article, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson delineated other positive business results that data-driven firms can typically generate. Their 2012 study included 330 public North American company interviews. They reported that “The more companies characterized themselves as data-driven, the better they performed on objective measures of financial and operational results…companies in the top third of their industry in the use of data-driven decision making were, on average, 5 percent more productive and 6 percent more profitable than their competitors."

With results like these, how could anyone possibly argue against the merits of big data? Analyst firm Gartner Group has. Jackie Fenn, a Gartner fellow, publishes an annual “Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies” report. In the 2013 edition, she declared that big data has reached a stage that she called “the peak of inflated expectations.” In other words, she considers big data to be hype. Gartner predicts that another 5–10 years will pass before big data reaches a “plateau of productivity.” This represents the time required until a technology can be readily and easily adopted.

Here is one more reason to be wary of big data's inflated promises. Big data server farms could be missing more than half of the information you need about your customers. Alexis Madrigal, a contributor to The Atlantic, reported in October 2012 that, in The Atlantic’s case, 56.5 percent of social traffic sources remained invisible to data analytics programs. She named this the “dark social” phenomenon and says, “[Dark social] shows up variously in programs as ‘direct’ or ‘typed/bookmarked’ traffic, which implies to many site owners that you actually have a bookmark or typed in into your browser. But that’s not what’s actually happening a lot of the time. Most of the time, someone Gchatted someone the link, or it came in on a big email distribution list, or your dad sent it to you…Dark social is even more important across this broader set of [media] sites. Almost 69 percent of social referrals were dark!”

I am not suggesting that marketing leaders should abandon big data initiatives designed to accelerate growth initiatives. In lieu of viewing big data as the holy grail of customer insight and engagement, consider that big data is a tool with a finite set of benefits within a larger toolbox. Today's most seasoned neuromorphic engineers have not yet designed a computer that works in ways that emulate the human brain. Our brains have high fault tolerances; they adapt to changing demands, stimuli and environments; and they do not operate from fixed algorithms.

The ability to clone human consciousness—which I define as our awareness of the human experience—is still elusive to us mere mortals. Our brains hold 86 billion nerve cells (neurons), and that's where human consciousness performs its magic. Big data initiatives do not imitate these intuitive realms.

If you are using big data with any of your marketing initiatives, find a way to simultaneously fine-tune and apply your intuition. Jill Richards, former CMO of Terracotta Technologies, reminds us that “The answer is not always in the data; it’s based on what you know about how people and markets work. In the end, people buy from people. There is still a ‘trust your gut’ factor. Sometimes the market timing may be off. Maybe the market or internal team is just not ready to hear it.”

In my newest book, The Mindful Marketer, I explain this concept as your “inner marketing guru” (IMG). Seasoned marketers use their IMG regularly to express sensations, emotions and feelings in response to experiences and to communicate how we are inextricably linked to something greater than our skeletal bodies. Our human experiences are the fuel that enriches our lives, our human relationships, our marketing strategies and our customer interactions.

As I reflect on the pivotal moments when I first turned on that Compaq personal computer, walked down the aisle on my wedding day and launched my first successful global marketing program, I realize how these events significantly contributed to my own body of wisdom. No Hadoop server farm will ever reproduce or replace those moments.

This article originally appeared in CMO Council

Copyright 2014, Lisa Nirell. All rights reserved.

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