Why We’re all Thinking Big Data (Jump Magazine Q+A)

Interview by Heather Taylor

One trend that is dominating conversation across marketing and wider business practices, is big data. How we measure it, how we store it and how we use it to inform the work that we do. We spoke to Chris O’Hara, domain expert on platform technology to find out about big data, why it’s important and how it is changing the marketing world.

Q Why is big data such a big deal and how did it get that way?

A: I think the term “Big Data” is getting thrown around a lot lately. There’s “data” that’s maybe too big for some companies to handle, and then there is truly “BIG DATA,” like you would find in the human genome, or Google search. The simple fact is that data has gotten a lot cheaper to store, and infinitely easier to access.

Big data is a big deal because people are leveraging technology to get insights from data they have never been able to get without spending more than those insights are worth. In short, understanding data makes money for those smart enough to leverage it, whether you are a digital agency, CPG marketer, or hedge fund. As the recent McKinsey report points out, “The volume of data that businesses collect is exploding: in 15 of the US economy’s 17 sectors, for example, companies with upward of 1,000 employees store, on average, more information than the Library of Congress does. New academic research suggests that companies using this kind of “big data” and business analytics to guide their decisions are more productive and have higher returns on equity than competitors that do not.”

Q: Why and how is big data moving us toward a more integrated marketing approach?

A: The largest change is not that data is being used to drive advertising creative and placement; it is that the data is available immediately, and that creates the opportunity for optimization. I think we are still in the early days, though. Most marketers and publishers are content to use off-the shelf 3rd-party segments to define and target audiences, rather than plumbing the (infinitely more valuable) depths of their own, first party datasets. Take large CPG companies who maintain databases all over the world. In one large company, you might have as many as 200 large databases, across dozens of operating companies all over the world. It is likely that those datasets have never been directly connected, and certainly it is highly unlikely that this data has never been stitched together and plumbed for insights.

The data equation in marketing is quite simple: the more an advertiser knows about you, the better you can be targeted. The real question is whether or not the effort and expense of such targeting is worth the incremental yield that targeting produces. As data gets cheaper and the cost of accessing diminishes, it is obvious that data starts to create real value for marketers.

Q: How is the era of big data changing the practice of digital marketing?

A: One of he biggest ways that data can help is in terms of avoiding waste. Before large amounts of data could be processed easily, there was no easy way to find out, as an example, what an advertisers’ unduplicated reach was across channels that include mobile, video, game consoles, and the Web.

The so-called “sciencification of marketing” is real. If you look at Terence Kawaja’s famous logo vomit slide of the digital display advertising landscape, it is clear that it is 100% driven by data. The underlying data is mostly audience-based, but there is also ad performance data, search data, engagement data, longitudinal data, and attitudinal data driving digital marketing these days.

On the direct marketing side, the transition from using mailing address data and surveys to target households to using IXI financial data to target online audience members via a cookie is not so different. Direct marketers can judge performance in real time with conversion data, and now brand marketers can leverage real-time engagement metrics to measure success.

Q: What are some examples of big data in integrated marketing?

A: The applications to use data in marketing are virtually unlimited. We are moving into a world where everything is interconnected, and we are surrounded by devices that transmit and store data constantly. These days, your supermarket partners with a brand to start a campaign on television, and that drives you to their website, to download a mobile coupon code that goes to your phone, and is used at the checkout line. Your purchase data is then stored, churned, and used to inform the next campaign. A better example of a big data approach to marketing (well, integrated digital marketing) is Google. Ingesting your search habits, video preferences, e-mail content, social network, mobile activity, and internet browsing habits takes a lot of expensive data storage, but it seems to be paying off for Google!

Q Which companies are jumping into the big data business and how will this help (and hinder) us?

A:  In the digital marketing space, you are going to see almost every progressive network, exchange, and data provider stake their claim to helping advertisers and publishers leverage their data. Some of them will be bigger than others. When it comes to managing truly huge amounts of audience data, there are very few companies that have managed to do it outside of the “big five” (AOL, Yahoo, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft). If a company truly has big data (petabytes, terabytes, or exabytes) then you need database software that can scale infinitely, and be able to query massive tables of data and return a result quickly. In marketing, that is starting to mean “real time,” which is not only a software challenge, but a hardware and logistical challenge as well. Marketers should look for a DMP that has actual experience working with massive data sets specifically for marketing applications.

Q What implications will digital marketers face with this big data trend?

A: Just because the data is there, doesn’t make it meaningful. These days it is possible to get a near real-time view of your audience at the creative level for digital display campaigns, but how many marketers can take advantage of the overwhelming amount of data that they receive every day beyond enabling a DSP to “auto-optimize a campaign, based on a single metric, such as conversion rate? Marketing insights that are driven by churning huge amounts of data are only as useful as the marketer’s ability to react to execute against them. That is why you are going to see the technology platforms that specialize in advertising execution team up with data platforms to try and get advertisers a true 360-degree view of the consumer that can be acted upon.

Q How can marketers leverage big data without being overwhelmed by it?

A: Try and learn what data is valuable and what is not. Even though I bought a new car 18 months ago, I am still bombarded with Volkswagen ads every time I check my email. Whoever is buying my “auto intender” cookie isn’t really getting their money’s worth, are they? My advice would be to perform a “data appraisal” that focuses on your own first-party data and see what you have. Even if your daily data is measured in gigabytes rather than petabytes, there is always something to leverage.

This appears in the current edition of eConsultancy’s Jump Magazine, which you can download here.

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