How to use big data (without becoming Big Brother)

25th Jan 2017

It’s become fashionable to call George Orwell a ‘prophet’; nonetheless, it’s important to remember that he would've probably  hated that label. Arguably his most famous novel, 1984 is an extreme – and effective – representation of mass surveillance, totalitarianism, and the misuse of information, but these things were far from unheard of at the time. When we call Orwell ‘prophetic’, what we really mean is that we’ve failed to learn from our mistakes.

The rise of ‘big data’ is another example of this. It’s become easier than ever to gather and analyse information, and this power has routinely been misused. Brokers sell individual records to the highest bidder; governments monitor the internet and phone usage of private citizens; a recent survey found that 81% of marketers share data across departments without the customer’s permission.

Indeed, modern customers are subject to endless spam and monitored without their permission, so it’s understandable that they’re suspicious of organisations that accumulate their information – especially when it seems like they’re doing so for no discernible reason. They’ve been soured by their experiences – and they’ll be less likely to trust you with their valuable data unless they know you’re going to use it ethically, responsibly, and in a way that improves their overall experience. 

So if your sales and marketing department is currently collecting customer information – or if it’s going to in the near future – take this opportunity to learn from the mistakes of others. Here are three rules for using Big Data without becoming Big Brother.

  1. Keep only the data you need

Not everyone in sales and marketing thinks to ask why they’re accumulating information. Some honestly don’t know if it increases profits, revenues, numbers of leads generated, or any other important metric; in fact, often they won’t necessarily have metrics in mind at all. They understand ‘big’ data to mean ‘the most data’, without thinking of its purpose. It’s more ineffectual than totalitarian, but it can lead to problems nonetheless.

First and foremost, it’s often illegal to collect information indiscriminately: the UK’s Data Protection Act and the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation enshrine rights to online privacy in law, and give companies certain responsibilities with regard to the length of time they can hold customer records. 

Secondly, it’s just bad strategy. You don’t need to know the previous employment details of someone who bought one product from you a half decade ago. You don’t really need to hold on to an old, out-of-service phone number for a customer who called tech support once in 2008. Details change all the time, and whether you’re willing to admit it or not, not everyone in your database is useful or interested in you.

Create and implement processes for spring cleaning your data – and for ascertaining the value of customer information before you add it to your records. Not everyone who speaks to your sales and marketing department is going to be part of your target market, so don’t keep their details on file.

You need to be able to identify opportunities and get the clearest possible window into customer behaviour: a little accurate information is always better than a lot of useless information.

  1. Target your communications

Orwell’s dystopia is written with a singular focus: it’s enervating, soul-crushing, liberty-suppressing stuff. But it never quite gets at the other problem with mass surveillance: it’s bloody annoying. In this respect, Kafka is probably a better cultural touchstone. What happens when the information-gatherers get it wrong?

Just as institutions poke, prod, harass, irritate, and engage Josef K – the wrong man – in pointless, circular conversations in The Trial, modern businesses are apt to pester their customers with untargeted, irrelevant, messaging. The difference is that these companies are the ones at a disadvantage; Josef K had to listen, after all, whereas customers can just delete your message and move on.

If you want to avoid this, make sure you communicate only with the right people – and only at the right times. Should customer data indicate that an individual prefers to be contacted during the daytime, don’t phone them after 6pm. If a business only buys certain items from you, don’t send them special offers for completely different products. Do otherwise, and you’ll imperil your customer relationships. All data should be used carefully and judiciously; to speak to the real needs of end-users, not the company’s real need for quick profits. 

When sales and marketing is treated like a scattergun, it tends to backfire.

  1. Be useful, and build trust

Finally, Orwellian surveillance is characterised by how entirely one-sided it is: in his own, words, the end goal of power isn’t making things better – “the object of power is power.”

When customers entrust their personal information to you, they expect something in return. They wouldn’t hand it over otherwise. So it’s incumbent on your company to make sure that its providing value for money – not just keeping an eye on them and emailing them only when you’re running out of warehouse space.

Instead, use it to deliver a consistent customer experience. Modern technology empowers businesses to respond to enquiries quickly and effectively – to use the information available to mutually beneficial ends. If you know that a customer buys a few of your products in great volume, you can retain them more effectively with targeted discount offers. For example, if you’re in automotive aftermarket sales, you’ll likely have customers who buy both tyres and hubcaps in large quantities: why not combine both transactions in one custom package – and pre-empt any defection to your competitors? You make money, and your customers save time.

The object of data is not data. Customers have become jaded by experiences with businesses which collect their data for no discernible reason and then put it to annoying – or meaningless – use. It’s incumbent on you to use their information properly: to collect it responsibly, to target consenting customers according to their preferences, and to communicate with their needs firmly in mind.

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