(First published in The WAO/FACTOR newsletter in January 2012)
It seems that we are entering the Age of Big Data. Just look at IBM, whose advertising keeps hammering the now huge importance of data in business, in fact, in all aspects of Life. Big Data, abundance of data, data overflow, tsunami, clutter; every other marketer already already complains s/he’s got too much of it to make sense.
And this is only the beginning. Really.
The data wave is going to hit Marketing in ways marketers still have no idea. We are going to record everything. Up to now, data has been like footsteps in the sand; a very partial representation from which we had to deduct the height, weight, direction, heck, the mindset of the walker.
Archeologists can know a lot about vanished civilizations, how people lived and how they probably thought, based on artifacts. However a lot is always lost, since what those civilizations left behind are very tiny, extremely minuscule, incomplete traces of what they once were.
In a similar fashion, Marketing data are artifacts, behavioral objects we gather, and from which we try to reconstruct an entire civilization of behaviors, of mindsets, of social influence, fads, even cultures of consumption, made of billions of purchasing decisions as if we were engaged in some kind of archeology of the customer. However, data has never been the totality of the phenomenon, telling us all the whats and whys.
Big Data, Very Big Data means that, someday, we won’t just contemplate traces, but will see the entire person, why s/he is going in that direction, what or who made her do it. Sampling, as representation of populations/markets/segments, will become obsolete. We will record everything there is to know, one customer at a time, for every customer. No need to shout “Big Brother!”; you already relinquished your anonymity years ago.
Together with Total Data, we will have astonishingly powerful analytics systems to make sense of it all. It is possible that those systems will be capable of not only predicting, but prescribing the best courses of action.
As for me, I am not sure if the era of absolute data will put an end to speculation, guessing, hoping for everyone to respond positively to our offers. Humans are moving targets; they can easily think A and do B. Irrationality does not lend itself easily to analytics, and consumers are full of it. Unless irrationality is simply the unexplained, due to lack of data!
Anyhow, I wonder if the law of dimishing returns won’t apply to data as well. At some point, regardless of the amount of data and processing powers we have, I am not sure there will be a point of absolute knowledge, of total clarity, and capacity to influence behaviors. At the end of the day, sucky products and services will still be bad, and no amount of insights will make them sellable.
With the promises of Big Data, there’s a looming risk of trusting analytics too much, at the detriment of marketing creativity. Perfect information doesn’t mean perfect imagination. Marketers can be very good thanks to analytics, but they can’t get great only by relying on data. On top of the analytics wall sits marketing imagination.
There’s a quote attributed to Henry Ford that says: “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have answered a faster horse”. Whether or not he actually said that is not really important; I believe it will hold true for many, many years.