On Big Data, Marketers Must Seek Balance

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In an April 6 op-ed in The New York Times, psychologist Gary Marcus and computer scientist Ernest Davis provide some cautionary insight into the limits of Big Data, arguing that the hype surrounding the emerging field of data science has become so intoxicating that it’s luring many sectors of the economy into the false belief that numbers always tell the truth.

The authors note that while Big Data excels at drawing correlations and can be a great compliment to larger research projects, when dealing with large data sets it’s often necessary to incorporate other information to get to the meaning behind the numbers.

“There is no doubt that big data is a valuable tool that has already had a critical impact in certain areas,” Marcus and Davis write. “But precisely because of its newfound popularity and growing use, we need to be levelheaded about what big data can — and can’t — do.”

As the marketing profession becomes more data-driven, advertisers would be well served by heeding that advice. Brands are already facing the challenge of navigating a consumer base that is increasingly uneasy about the use of their personal information. However, a robust data strategy has the power to transform marketing models as long as practitioners understand the limitations.

During a recent roundtable discussion hosted by ClickZ, a panel of experts explored the benefits of Big Data for marketers to determine the extent to which emerging data science is being used to engage customers and produce actionable intelligence.

In a summary of the event, Stephanie Miller identified five ways that Big Data is driving marketing innovation. It has the potential to:

  • Improve market segmentation and fuel a truly customer-centric, one-on-one engagement model

  • Create a more accurate picture of customer “personas”

  • Drive social marketing by making sense of unstructured data such as comments, tweets and posts

  • Improve channel optimization by helping marketers understand what is important in the moment and across touch points

  • Inform content curation and accelerate content marketing opportunities

But Miller concedes that Big Data brings with it a risk of over-automation.

“The risk that we become too dependent on automation to do the work of content strategy is accelerated with Big Data,” she writes. “You may find yourself only running more quickly down the wrong road or interpreting an intention or inference.”

This is a sentiment echoed by Jake Sorofman and Andrew Frank in a recent column in The Harvard Business Review, in which the authors warn that our current “Big-Data obsession” may be leading some marketers to rely too heavily on data at the expense of other important marketing strategies.

The message is clear: Having keen insight into customer behavior through data science, or using predictive analysis to get a sense of which way the market is heading, can inspire the momentum to move campaigns forward. But when it comes to driving creative content, Big Data is just one tool among many.

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