Rick Liebling
Jul 7, 2014

R.I.P. Big Data (2001-2014)

The term 'Big Data', like many terms glommed onto by marketers, has jumped the shark.

Rick Liebling
Rick Liebling

At this year’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, Sir John Hegarty had the following response when asked about the role of Big Data in advertising.

"It's no longer data," he groused. "Now it's 'Big Data.' We've rebranded it 'Big Data,' because it's more important. Oh geez.”

Indeed, simply calling something “Big” doesn’t make it more important, valuable or relevant. But there is something important to be taken from this discussion. Regardless of what we call it, data does have a role to play in the marketing industry, and an increasingly prominent role. For while one Knight of the realm may be rolling his eyes, another spoke in no uncertain terms about how he views data:

“Advertising is not an art anymore; it’s a science. I believe data informs great creativity.”

That quote comes from no less an authority than Sir Martin Sorrell, Chief Executive of WPP, which earned the honours at Cannes for Holding Company of the Year for the fourth straight year. While his words speak to all forms of advertising creativity, they certainly resonate strongly in the field of social media, where the wealth of data available to brands meets the critical need to stand out with compelling content.

When thinking about this connection between social and data, questions come rushing to the surface: How does a brand or agency deal with the flood of data they now have access to? When and where can data be used most effectively, and for what purpose? What types of data hold real information, and what produces mere vanity metrics? 

At Unmetric we certainly know first hand what it’s like to have access to massive amounts of data. We track literally millions of pieces of micro-content (tweets, pins, status updates, etc.) from more than 20,000 brands. But just having access to data, or more precisely, just providing our clients with access to data isn’t enough. Today, “big” doesn’t win, “smart” does.

Today the challenge to marketers is turning a lot of data into just the right amount of data; turning a data dump into something actionable. Perhaps most importantly it’s about making social media—and the data it produces—ladder back to larger business objectives for the brand.

Of course that’s not easy, is it? In some cases it’s simply not possible, but we believe that creating smart data is the first step; and that first step isn’t just about ones and zeroes. Yes, when it comes to speed and scale algorithms will beat a human every time. But when a problem requires nuance or culturally informed pattern recognition then the human element comes back in to play in a big way. Even in the age of super-computers, humans have a significant role to play in the Smart Data era of Social Media.

Humans + algorithms = smart data.

At a time when the phrase “I for one welcome our new computer overlords” is part of the cultural zeitgeist, it’s important to recognise that human cognition still bridges the gap between data and business intelligence. Here are some examples:

Beyond walled gardens

Smart data knows how to break down walls. By adding a level of human cognition, patterns, in the form of campaigns, can be identified across social platforms. Understanding how social media content is working at the campaign level opens up new levels of understanding that can affect planning, creative and even paid-media activities.

Beyond social data

Smart data not only crosses multiple social networks, it also can help bridge the gap between social media and other parts of the marketing mix. A media-buying agency, for example, can look at a variety of information such as brand tracking studies, GRPs and tune-in data for one of their clients, and overlay that with social-media data to look for correlations between social activity and viewership figures.

Beyond verticals

We’ve all experienced it: You’re online and thanks to some one-time web search you’re served a barrage of ads for products and services you really have no interest in. Real targeting, the kind that has contextual relevance, comes when people add cultural knowledge and intuition into the formulas. For a diet drink brand, looking at direct competitor data is interesting, but stifles creativity. A smart marketer in that category explores affinity mapping to identify potential customers via fans of activity trackers, workout apparel and weight-loss systems.

Smart Data is the future of marketing—especially social media marketing—and it requires more than just better algorithms and faster processing. The ability to synthesize, interpret and identify meaningful data (and take action upon it) will mark the winners from losers in the future.

Rick Liebling is the head of global marketing for Unmetric. He will be moderating a panel at ad:tech ASEAN in Singapore tomorrow.

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