Is 'big data' a big con?

‘Big data’ continues to get attention as the marketer’s next big priority. But is it all just an illusion invented to sell technology? Comment below to tell us what you think.


As you can imagine, at Marketing Week we are having an increasing number of conversations, hearing more pitches and writing more articles about data - it has become the lifeblood of the profession and has even been called ‘the new oil’. But all the time the elephant in the room is making more and more noise. People are beginning to ask if big data is all a big con.

The sceptics allege that the phrase is just a way to scare companies into paying a lot of money for database technology that they don’t really need. Or that it’s really only an evolution, not a revolution, in the way organisations handle data.

I’m very careful about approaching buzzwords, since they’re often invented to serve someone’s agenda - invariably to publicise a business book. But my own feeling is that the phrase is in fact a helpful one, or at least one that describes something that’s genuinely both important and new.

There has undeniably been an emphatic shift in recent years towards certain human behaviours - notably ecommerce, online content consumption and social networking - that leave behind them unavoidable trails of data, which the previous equivalents of those behaviours - going to the shops, reading newspapers and talking to your friends - didn’t.

At the same time, governments and organisations are making more records, and in more infinitesimal detail, of all sorts of measurable events - human behaviour, market movements, machine performance and so on.

It is the accumulated data from these new and ubiquitous technologies that I now think of as big data, rightly or wrongly. It’s different from the customer transaction data and market research data that marketers have been accustomed to for decades because it is higher in volume, comes from more sources and isn’t as easily turned into digestible formats.

Not everyone will agree with this. But in any case, even if we settle on a definition of big data, that’s not the same as saying it’s useful to all organisations.

Most of the time, you won’t need a sales person to tell you if you need to invest in a data platform because you already know what data and insight sources are of use to your business, and it should become obvious quite quickly whether the features of a given technology product fit with your objectives. It’s not magic or alchemy, and there’s no need to be scared of it.

However, if you have another take, we’d like to hear from you, so let us know in the comment box below.

Readers' comments (17)

  • Great article and very timely as I was just bemoaning the use of this buzzword to describe something which for us as a small multi-channel retailer is as simple as utilising tools and intelligence to analyse data and its affect.As long as you understand what you want to measure and have specific parameters this seemingly overwhelming mass of big data becomes a focused manageable sub-set. Not so scary.

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  • I believe Big Data is something that all organisations need to embrace, and it's not just something driven by the data and technology brands for commercial gain, but its driven by simple customer expectations on how they expect brands to interact with them.

    Customers now expect personalised, targeted, relevant marketing to be presented to them in a way which they find it most convenient and unintrusive to consume - it's these expectations that shapre the need for Big Data across all channels in all industries.

    Take Tesco as an example; their Clubcard data is the holy grail for Marketers as it shapes everything from brand strategy to promotions and individual interactions. Used in conjunction with other data sources, say search marketing data, both competitive advantage and higher conversion can be achieved - and Tesco do this exceptionally well!

    It's a brave new world where we no longer have to really guess or take a salesperson's word for it on the attitudes of the target. This is quantified and interpreted for us, it just takes the right Marketer to turn that Big Data into Big Bucks.

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  • Big Data is certainly more big hype rather than a big con. A term invented by database technology firms, but has been exploited to help data people articulate how the data that has more recently become important to marketers is different to the traditional customer and research data (and presents new challenges to overcome). Accordingly there will be further debate to try to settle a commonly agreed definition.
    The term Big Data sounds intriguing and in the creative world of marketing provides a subject on which to engage a wider audience about data. Arguably a good thing.
    But, take a look beyond the hype and try to consider whether you really have a BIG DATA problem, or rather a BIG data PROBLEM - the latter being something that many brands have suffered from for years. And there are many great businesses out there to help without the need for great investment in new technology!

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  • I agree that “It is the accumulated data from these new and ubiquitous technologies". But there is more to Big Data. I like definition that some vendors are using to categorize Big Data - Volume, Velocity, Variety, Veracity and Value.

    I think that Big Data also is really changing the way we are dealing with data. Collecting and processing a huge amount of data is now more feasible and cost effective with Big Data technology. The IT team used to structure the data before loading it into traditional databases.

    Many companies are now collecting data files into Big Data environments without fully understand what specific and potentially sensitive information that is hidden in those files. In many cases they do not have the resources to analyze before collecting huge volumes of data files. Privacy issues and risk should be discussed when using big data in this scenario. Many organizations have rushed into Big Data focused solely on ROI, and security is an afterthought. There is also a shortage in Big Data skills and an industry-wide shortage in data security personnel, so many organizations don’t even know they are doing anything wrong from a security perspective.

    The good news is that some organizations are proactive and successfully using new approaches to address issues with security and privacy in Big Data environments. Big Data is very different – not like our traditional databases.

    Ulf Mattsson, CTO Protegrity

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  • I think there is certain element of truth in what you say about a big term to sell technology. As a marketer you know what metrics you need and matter most to you and to the senior team. However the question is always what are you doing with the current data you are getting right now? are you making any sense of it? If the answer is no, then you have a long way to go. If the answer is yes. Then move on to the big data thing. Also, for this big data to make sense you really need critical mass. In some cases B2B and complex sales, there is just not enough critical mass to make sense of that data.

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  • Big data is not a big con at all. Many business need it and will find it invaluable. I work for a search engine marketing agency who have now built a tool that can do this analysis in multiple markets. If someone reading this is interested in having sensible conversation drop me a line and I'd be happy to see if we can help your situation. @lt_ad

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  • Hi Michael,

    I hope readers will follow me on this line of thought- I think this identifies a lack of understanding which can be explained in relation to articles in this magazine earlier this year and last year, which were based on the Fournaise 2012 Global Marketing Effectiveness Program research.

    Basically, there is complete lack of understanding of marketing in the board room, in particular digital marketing. Big Data is another trendy phrase bandied about by marketing experts which the C-suite doesn't understand. That's not because of age (I'm not age-ist), but because there are very rarely any marketing trained directors in the room.

    However, equally, that doesn't mean that BD issues are applicable to every company and sector. You can't buy petrol and stick it in your car on the web and while 10% of retail sales are via e-commerce, that leaves 90% via B&M. No doubt a %age of B&M sales are driven via web research, but final decisions are made in store.

    Marketers have to analyse better and present to directors better, what BD means to their particular market/sector/niche/channel. They have to translate the market-speak/psycho-babble into financial language and explain clearly and articulately, in words anyone can understand, exactly how paying for new database analysis will impact the bottom line.



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  • Big data is a fact - there is no con. It is not where, how or what you store it in - the key to succeed is getting actionable insights out of the vast amount of customer / visitor data that drive profit related business decisions. The focus should be how to embrace the "elephant" in the room and the old saying that you have to cut it up first is so true. Elephants won't harm you if you ignore them but their sheer size and complexity means they are hard to ignore - those that do will find there is less space in the room!!!

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  • In a world of buzzwords, perhaps the most over-used and under-explained term that marketers will be coming up against this year is "Big Data". Big Data, as we've learned from actually working with the stuff is realistically only the first part of the jigsaw, especially when it comes to upping your game and marketing in a more agile manner. At TagMan we believe that it takes Big Marketers to unlock Big Data. People who are willing and able to look beyond the bygone era of a "campaign" that has a start and end point and realise that digital marketing has become about responding to the fast pace of the internet with equally fast and relevant decision-making. Many of TagMan's clients are already employing Big Marketing strategies that not only set them apart from their peers, but are also helping them to take the rough diamond that is raw data Big Data and transform it into revenue generating Big Marketing efforts insight for their business. Find out how one of the world's leading airlines are doing just that here

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  • ....Not if you can make use of it !!!

    Big Data will only be ‘a con’ if it is purely to tempt companies to buy more info/data etc. than they need or can practically make use of. If you can make practical use of the wider level of insights (at a strategic or tactical level) and help make improved decisions or plans then it is no con.... just a good investment with better returns.
    I am sure all markets, sectors and companies are different but in my FMCG commercial roles (with Diageo, Scottish & Newcastle and Heineken), I learnt to focus data and research demands on the ‘need to know’ rather than the ‘nice to know’. I think the idea of big data (and connecting all the dots) is great, but make sure you have the resources and abilities to turn it into commercial advantage.... or outsource specific areas.
    Some companies are already outsourcing areas which have a direct impact on ROI/profit to optimise their plans, increase revenue or reduce spend. This improves the balance sheet ahead of deciding on the added investment towards ‘big data’. In our experience in Pricing & Trade Promotions, many companies are amazed at the additional savings or gains they can easily make by optimising their existing plans using some of the new methods and tools available. This obviously then helps with the future investment in ‘big (or bigger) data’ discussions
    Graeme Scott-Dodd,

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