Is “big data” forcing advertisers and marketers to lose sight of what’s important?

Sign: "Big Data Straight Ahead"
via Google Search

Raise your hand if you haven’t heard the words “big data” uttered at least once in the last year.

I’m expecting none of you raised a hand…

And that’s because chances are you clicked on the title of this post for one of three reasons: 1. You’ve heard those two words mentioned so frequently over the past few years (on social media, from industry experts, at conferences, etc.) that reading yet another post about “big data” seems like just another day (it’s become a bit of a habit, eh?), 2. You’re constantly tasked to find new ways of leveraging “big data” in your career and thus actively seek posts with the aforementioned buzzwords, 3. You, like every other marketer, advertiser, and business professional, are just looking for a way to make sense of “big data” in the greater scheme of things.

Big Data
via Google Search

No matter what reason (mentioned above or not) brought you here, it’s important to note a few reasons why “big data” can cause many professionals to lose sight of what’s truly important for your company, brand and product.

We live in a world where “big data” is not only an asset but a necessity. Where the next “it” metric to attain data is discussed on the daily. Where companies demand even more data to make sense of new data. Where advertisers and marketers constantly struggle to make sense of this massive amount of excess data. Where innumerable numbers account for just one forehead of a current or potential consumer. In all of these scenarios there is one vital thing missing: the human.

The human experience - child playing in a sunset
via Google Search

Data is data, but what’s missing are the long-form stories behind the data – the human behind it all (and I’m not talking about one to two sentence “insights”). When was the last time you had a simple answer to a truly complex question, like “what’s the meaning of life?”? Not recently, right? That’s because a simple answer to most questions are rare. Despite the rarity, “big data” constantly strives to become a shortcut for discovering who a person is and what he/she stands for by attributing numbers to everything possible. But I keep wondering – how can a few, or more likely, many data points make up a whole person? Maybe I’m getting too philosophical here, but while data can tell you what I’ve purchased, watched online (and for how long), and what type of products generally interest me – it doesn’t really tell you who I am, how I see myself and how I’d like others to perceive me. That’s what I mean by human.

Crowd of people
via Google Search
via Google Search

As humans it’s in our biological nature to generalize, stereotype and categorize everything we think about and do in order to understand the world around us. Despite that inbred desire to apply categories and now, data points to everything including people, why not take the more time-consuming approach? Why not take the time to get to know human beings and truly understand them and their experiences, instead of mass producing messages and products for “Person Type A” and “Person Type B”? Now you’re probably thinking that in order to stay relevant today and have mass appeal you needed more data ten minutes ago and long-form tactics will always be less applicable and cost-efficient in the long run. But for once, let’s take ROI, costs and mass appeal off the table.

I believe “big data” is a safety net and that’s why we constantly use it as a baseline or crutch. It’s used to support business decisions and defend business tactics. It allows you to place a number or keyword on a person or situation. But to me, all I really see is that it takes the human out of the human.

And what do I propose to put the human back in the human? Focus less on “big data” and more on user generated collaboration. First, take the time to listen to the community. Don’t just create experiences for “Person Type A” and “Person Type B” based on whatever data points you’ve collected and “insights” you’ve synthesized. And second, have the community create experiences with you – side by side. As a business or company, you already know who you are and what you stand for – it’s in your mission statement. So bring who you are to the table and have the consumer meet you there. Be completely transparent. Don’t ask consumers what they want and need, because frankly, sometimes we, as consumers, have absolutely no idea how to answer either question. Instead, ask us who we are, what we’ve lived through, who we want to be, what problems we have, and what we wish for. From those questions, you’ll start to see the human being behind it all. In order to create a valuable product, service or experience for consumers, you must fully understand their problem and why it’s a problem for that person and possibly, many other people. And it’s by doing this step with people instead of for them, that will create truly meaningful solutions for communities – both small and large, defined and undefined.

The next time you’re faced with KPIs, ROI and a million other acronyms, consider this: why are you crunching these numbers and are you really learning anything really meaningful about who you’re trying to target?

As always, comments and questions are welcome below.

Cheers, Christina

2 thoughts on “Is “big data” forcing advertisers and marketers to lose sight of what’s important?

  1. Amen to this. It’s why communities like tumblr and youtube thrive when others are empty. Honestly believe internet communities are a million times more important than the statistics that describe them.

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