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How to make Big Data smart data

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3rd Dec 2012
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It may be this year's buzz word, but the majority of companies are unsure how to make the most of the opportunities that Big Data presents, say Sana Dubarry and Jane Finch.

Big Data has become a buzz word in marketing around the world, and with good reason. The IDC Extracting Value From Chaos report found that in 2011 the amount of information created and replicated surpassed 1.8 zettabytes (1.8 trillion gigabytes), growing by a factor of nine in the last five years.
It comes as no surprise then that harnessing Big Data and transforming it into smart data that drives companies forward is what CMOs and other CxOs regularly identify as their most important goal. Yet looking around the world, particularly at the more sophisticated marketing territories, the majority of companies are unsure how to make the most of the opportunities that Big Data presents.
So what’s going wrong?
Some argue that we still don’t really have the technology to effectively deal with Big Data. But the stats don’t particularly back this up. The IDC report states that since 2005 enterprise investment in the digital universe has increased 50% to $4 trillion. This includes cash spent on software, hardware, services and staff. So on the face of it businesses are actually investing heavily in technology to manage, and derive revenue from,
Big Data.
In fact, advances in technology have helped to facilitate the rise in Big Data. Increased processing power and speed, particularly in real time, have increased the number of people creating and using data. From smartphones continuously reporting their location to the explosion in cloud data and cheap memory, the ability to create, store and manage data has never been so available to so many. The information stream previously controlled by traditional media and brands is now entirely democratised, allowing consumers to control and change how data flows.
Power shift
Consumers now interact with brands across an increasingly wide variety of touch points, from physical and online stores to mobile and wireless devices via social and near field communication tools. These opportunities also hand customers the power to shake and shape brands directly, and to openly and freely discuss their opinions and attitudes about brands. Everything from customer service to marketing campaigns to political affiliations is open to scrutiny, debate and comment.
A lack of customer data is no longer the issue. According to a recent McKinsey report, the global data generated per year is projected to grow at 40%. In comparison, Gartner’s 5% projected worldwide increase in IT spending is tiny. How to make sense of the massive volumes of data being accrued at an unprecedented speed and in numerous structures is now the biggest headache. For those new to working with large amounts of data it can be difficult to know where to start. To actually succeed in the Big Data age everyone in the business needs to understand and embrace data.
In the not so distant past, it wasn’t unusual to hear a marketer boldly declare, "I am not a data person." For many it was almost seen as an embarrassment to be seen to be working with marketing data. Direct marketers who worked with data were overshadowed by above the line specialists. However the tide has shifted in recent years and many in the marketing industry have become far more data literate. Data has become attractive, even sexy. Data literacy is now more essential than ever before.
Data gold mine
As well as the ability to understand and handle data, today’s businesses need to be able to transform data into something useful. This requires both dynamism and agility - big data cannot be turned into smart data passively. To make a transformation that can drive a business forward effectively, data needs to be tackled head-on. Data is only useful with context - when there are clear business objectives behind each data decision. Technology is there to enable the CIO to realise those business objectives within the budget and resources of the business. When technology is deployed with direction and supported by capable analytics personnel who understand the organisation, good business insights will generally follow.
Wise engagement with technology can unlock the power of information. The data held by brands can reveal customers’ attitudes or behaviours, not just for marketing activities but across all touch points. This can include their experiences with sales and customer services staff, the store layout, services and products provided at the physical stores, and online and mobile properties. The information excavated from different touch points could potentially reveal a host of business benefits.
American supermarket brand Wal-Mart was an early pioneer in this field. It used predictive analytics to understand customer preferences on a local basis and then stocked local branches accordingly. Another famous example is the retailer Target, whose statisticians leveraged the power of Big Data to successfully predict a woman't pregnancy even before the father knew!
In order to use big data to make efficient, cost-effective, informed business decisions, we advocate the following:
 
  1. Give everyone in the business a “data education”.
  1. Seek to prioritise and invest in data across the business – don’t make this a silo budget allocation for marketing or IT.
  1. Ensure ‘top down’ buy-in of Big Data.

Sana Dubarry is director of strategic consulting & advanced analytics, EMEA, and Jane Finch is director of marketing database solutions, EMEA of Epsilon International.

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