The urban legends of big data

“Big data” has become a big buzzword for digital media types. The problem—aside from mind-numbing overuse—is that “big data” has been rendered almost meaningless by a lack of understanding of what data can actually do for marketers. With all the confusion surrounding big data, we decided to ask data scientists at brands and agencies about some of the urban legends that pervade the industry.

Big data is for big companies.
Companies like IBM, Intel, SAP have been mining and interpreting data for many years. But, according to John Forman, the chief data scientist at email marketing company MailChimp, Big Data can and should be used for companies of all sizes.

“Even small businesses can produce large amounts of transactional data on websites and in stores,” Forman said. “And the right data science techniques and applications (e.g. customer segment detection, discount optimization, ad targeting) can give a small business a leg up.”

Big data is a strategy.
Data is a tool, not a strategy. When CMOs ask for a Big Data strategy, what they’re really asking for is staff that can interpret the reporting that data management platforms deliver. “Reporting is something that shows up on your screen. Analysis is the human interaction,” said Emilio Lapiello, director of advanced analytics and strategy at DataXu.

No algorithm ever solved a business problem. “This question shouldn’t be ‘What’s our big data strategy?,’ but rather, ‘How can we use data to solve X?’,” said Mindshare’s chief data officer Bob Ivins.  “‘X’ is the business issue that keeps the C-Suite awake at night.”

More data is better.
Mostly False. Big data is short hand for too much data. Consumers now generate so much information, the sheer quantity of it paralyzes marketers. Instead of trying to gather more and more data with the hope of finding some magic bullet, marketers need to look for the data that works for them.

“You don’t always need Big data,” Lapiello said. “If you have the right data set, you can come up with a good model.”

If an online retailer, for example, wants to know exactly what path a consumer took before purchasing online, they’ll want to look at transaction sequences.  “Extract the data that works for your business.”

Big Data will help us get to know our customers better.
Partially true. The challenge, according to Universal McCann’s vp global intelligence director David Tucker, is finding the human meaning in data. A recent Gartner report about big data found that more than half of enterprises struggled to get value out of big data. For the rest, “I’m pretty certain they have the notional idea that big data will help them to understand their customers better, and serve up deals accordingly,” he said. “For the 44 percent who have this perspective, I think you’re on the right track.”

Tucker wants us to remember that at root, the data being collected is about people. That means that data needs to be put into human context. Think of Netflix’s original show “House of Cards.” The company’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos told the Hollywood Reporter last year that it used data to offer up ads for the show.

“[Director David] Fincher cut seven different trailers for us,” Sarandos said. “Some of them were focused really heavily on the female characters, some on the politics, some on Kevin Spacey, one on David Fincher. So the trailer that you saw was based on what you were just watching or what you just watched recently.”