To reap the benefits of big data, marketers must learn to join the dots

Jane Hodson

The recent IPA report – ‘The Big Opportunity: Audience Research Meets Big Data’ – is all about the possibilities big data represents. Particularly when it’s married with other forms of data, rather than existing in isolation.

If we’re honest, the report is nothing new. Bringing behavioural, transactional and research data together has long been debated. But it does make a number of very valid and pertinent observations – including the idea that big data on its own is useless. It argues that, just as you would never try to run a car on crude oil, big data must be refined in order to be valuable. And this couldn’t be more true.

One of the greatest challenges facing marketers today is the question of how to derive insights from multiple data points. We are living in what has been called the ‘golden age of marketing’: we can reach our consumers in more ways than ever before – across different platforms, devices and media. And, while this has created a plethora of opportunities, it has also made the data-sphere even more labyrinthine, and challenging to navigate.

If we are to refine and gain understandings from big data, it’s imperative that we improve our approach in a number of ways. Importantly, we need to bring into sharper focus how exactly the insights big data gives us are going to be used.

Just as report author Richard Marks argues, this is about data curation, not data creation. In order to curate data effectively we need to address the divide between data functions and strategy, and put data specialists at the heart of strategic planning and processes. They are not back office boffins. They are strategists.

Data agencies, advertisers, and in-house marketers or data experts need to join up data sets throughout the marketing planning process; understand the insights these can deliver – such as insights into engagement and behavioural patterns; and unite data analysis and creative thinking.

As the IPA report argues, there has always been the need to understand the ‘what’ and the ‘why’: what consumers say is often different to what they do and we need to understand how the two work together. However, ‘what’ insights are usually confined to targeting and segmentation planning, while ‘why’ insights sit within the creative process. Both of these insights should feed into how we manage the data and creative processes, if we are to utilise big data.

In my view, the report is still too focused on measurement. We need to go back to the roots of the process, exploring the joined up role of our data sets or insights throughout the marketing process. Most companies are still not investing effectively in this area, and data ends up sitting in the commercial section – disconnected from marketing – while research is stuck in the marketing area. These areas should be joined together – creating a more complete overview of the marketing process.

Just as results in a scientific context might represent a fascinating finding – such as understanding how a virus replicates – it’s how these understandings feed into future discoveries – like developing a cure – that count.

In the marketing world we must ensure insights are continually working in harmony to make the transformational leaps towards marketing that breaks through. After all, if you look at the bigger picture, a ‘divine union’ is the catalyst towards a stronger relationship between consumers and brands. And who could ask for more than that?

Jane Hodson is managing partner at M&C Saatchi MILK

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