Small data is where it’s at!
Everything you think about Big Data is wrong!
Everything you think about Big Data is wrong!

Every day there is a new post about the impact of big data on marketing. In fact, most people in marketing leadership are concerned about what they are going to do about big data. It is challenging to understand and as a profession, we are working really hard to make heads and tails of the ones and zeroes. The Holy Grail that big data promises to deliver is that we marketers will have insanely tailored insights about our consumers so that we can get our messages in front of them at that zero moment of truth.

Big data promises better sales, bigger basket size and so on. It is the marketing messiah these days and I, for one, am struggling to buy into this future. I just don’t see it the same way everyone else does…maybe because I think the notion of big data driving smarter marketing decisions to be completely wrong. The reason, the data is mostly crap. I am pretty sure my data file is overrun with bad information. I have lived in 5 states in the last 15 years. I have more residences and phone numbers than could be logically kept in a file and… I lie! I put wrong phone numbers and email addresses that have been long closed on forms all the time. And I am sure I am not alone.

Hide and Seek

Small DataContrary to popular industry belief, people do not really like to be marketed to. They are becoming increasingly aware and concerned about their online and offline privacy and how their data is being used. In fact, in September a Pew Report showed that “86% of internet users have taken steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints”. The reason: hackers and ads! Hackers were the #1 concern and ads were #2. We are in the same survey with hackers, people! So, to think for one second that people are not actively trying to trick “big data” would be foolish.

Garbage in, garbage out, they say. But the promise and appeal of big data is so crazy sexy, what do we do? Well, first, I think we are thinking about it all wrong. People are not data files, or “consumers”. People are people. They are individuals with interests, needs and intentions. Sometimes, they have an honest intention to explore your products and services. When they do, they will do so in an honest way. But, they are not going to fill out a massive form to get a little information. They will give you small data. Just enough to get the information they need to satisfy their questions, curiosity and intent. When people signal their intent by sharing a little bit of their small data, their personal data, it is up to us to nurture that relationship. When we are respectful of our customer, their privacy and their data, we have a much better chance at nurturing that relationship enough to grow the customer profile over time to get an honest, true picture of your customer. Not the dishonest one begotten by spying and trickery.

We must change the way we think about customers

When we remember that our customers are people and not “consumers” or “targets” we can better treat them like people. Brands desperately want relationships with their customers. Customers just want their toothpaste. They don’t want big data, but they might want a coupon for toothpaste. They are not thinking about us in the same way we are thinking about them. In fact, customers are getting wise to our trickery and it is having quite the opposite effect. Instead of thinking about our products, they are thinking about ways to block our product messages. They are looking for ways to hide from us. They are feeling stalked.

Trust me when I say that I understand that tracking and building shopper profiles allow us to measure our work. Measuring our work is one of the most critical challenges marketing leaders face today. Showing a return on investment keeps many awake at night. But if the data is bad and turning off our customers, it is time we look for new ways to reach customers. We need to be thinking about small data, personal data, one person’s data, not big data. We should be thinking about intentions and how we can allow our customers to share their intention with us in a way that is not creepy. People are not ones and zeroes. They are more than that, and we need to start treating them that way.

Project VRM inspired this post. If you have some time this fall, do read The Intention Economy.

About the Author

Tracey Parsons
Since 1995, Tracey has been developing digital solutions. Currently SME Digital’s lead strategist, she continues to be dedicated to bringing cutting edge, thoughtful and measurable solutions to marketers. With more than 15 years in digital, Tracey not only brings vision, but the tools and strategies to execute against complex next generation concepts. She has worked with some of the world’s most recognized brands to develop and devise cutting-edge social, mobile and digital marketing practices.
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  • michael bian

    I agree, with we should be thinking about intentions and how we can allow our customers to share their intention with us in a way that is not creepy. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Tracey Parsons

    Susan, thanks for sharing your ideas! “Mass” is also a huge challenge in our industry. And frankly, I feel it no longer applies. I think we are going to shift to current consumer intent driving more marketing vs. past consumer habits. But, that’s just my opinion. It will be so interesting to see where things move in the coming years. I am hopeful that we, as marketers, can do that heavy lifting that will show real results in the spend. Thanks for sharing!

  • susanbaier

    Tracey, I think you make a lot of good points in your article, especially about focusing on the needs of consumers instead of their demographics. However, I disagree that data (good or bad) is really the problem. Consumers are aggressively (and rightly) rebelling against marketing messaging that is completely irrelevant to them — and we marketers are to blame, not the data.

    It’s one thing to turn the page on an uninteresting ad in a magazine — we understand that the magazine serves a wide spectrum of readers and not everything’s going to be relevant to us. It’s completely different to get an irrelevant email in your inbox, from a brand where you’ve been shopping for years and which should know better.

    Consumers have a wide range of motivations that drive their purchase decisions — even for toothpaste. And they don’t like being treated as if they’re all the same, which is what happens when we use data poorly — hence the assumption that all women with small children and a job are harried, stressed and fanatically safety-focused. Data, collected and analyzed well, and used properly, can help us craft highly relevant messages for consumers thrilled to hear from us about what we offer — but we have to do the heavy lifting.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  • Tracey Parsons

    Patrick and Bradley, I am so delighted to have you on my team! It might be an ugly fight, but, it is one worth having. We cannot let marketing decisions be obscured by bad or big data. The only data that matters is the data that is tied to the intent of the customer. Thanks for the high five and comments!

  • I want to high-five this entire post. Thanks for helping to take some of the hype out of Big Data. Small/Smart Data and user-by-in are both more important and more actionable for most people.

  • Tracey I agree! I think that you always need to start from first marketing principles – who is your audience and what do they believe? If you can really get to understand who they are and where they go and what they need (small data), then, that will in many ways present the solution to you.

    This is why I have a controversial point of view about big data. I think big data is a dinosaur-throwback. I think big data feels like the savior to people who want to go back to being in charge because big data is like doing taxidermy or like bio class where you get to cut open the frog – because big data says ‘I get to treat this group of people the way I used to treat everyone, I nailed those people with stuff’ and there’s a lot of interesting hoopla around it, but I’m not seeing it change anything. I’m not seeing a company go from not big to really important merely because they use big data.


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