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Since I started my entrepreneurial venture just a short while ago I have been immersed in learning about marketing. As a seasoned IT professional for more than 20 years I know what it means to face something brand new and to invest the time to make it useful.

As I learn more about marketing, I feel like I am coming to understand more about that fashionable thing called ‘Big Data.’ Now, I’m no stranger to large information systems after working for a large global enterprise for the majority of my career. Few things were as aggravating as finding out in production that we failed to test the applications with production sized data volumes.

For IT people without study in the term, I would expect that the term ‘Big Data’ is initially taken to mean lots more of the same. More tables, more rows which become more disk space, more CPU, more RAM, a bigger network, etc. Of course, this implies that more, new and better infrastructure is required to support all this increased demand.

Of course, this perspective of potential customers is a boon for technology providers. In fact, nowhere have I seen more vehemence about all the latest trends ‘Cloud’, ‘Big Data’, ‘Social’ and ‘Internet of Things’ than from those who sell these products and services.

Finding that the digital marketing world is overflowing with pitches for these trends, I begin to wonder: how do these things help business? Of course, we live in times where more is better, faster is better, choice should never be constrained. While some of that proves correct in many instances, is it always true? Is it true enough of the time?

As an amateur and growing marketer, I’m starting to understand the draw of ‘Big Data’. I have spent much of my time on defining my products and services, figuring out who my target customers are, determining how I find those customers and formulating how to communicate my value proposition to them. The idea that I could just use a ‘Prospect Search Engine’ that just spits out a scored lead list based on my product descriptions would be wonderful.

With today’s science and data heavy ethos, I think I can understand the draw of Big Data to marketers. I would expect answers to questions like ‘Who is most likely to buy my product or service?’ are a panacea to any busy marketer. Answers to that question along with others appear to be solid footing for a business case for Big Data tools and infrastructure.

Data that may be used to help answer marketing questions comes from many sources: transaction records, loyalty program participation, social media behavior, responses to content marketing, focus groups, product and category performance, psychological and sociological studies, etc.

Is it enough to just gather more of the same data and keep it in the marketing silo? The ‘Internet of Things’ for example promises to have tsunamis of data coming in from sensors in everything from toasters to toilets. If you sell toasters, perhaps you are interested in data from all your toasters in the field. Interest is not enough to justify the expense as large as some Big Data solutions can cost however.

To leverage the power of data size does not matter. What matters is integration. If, for example, I run a for-profit business then what I want is for my business to become and remain profitable. If profit means that I sell my product for more than it costs me to make and sell it then the first place my mind goes is to questions like ‘how much does it cost me to make and sell it?’ and ‘how much can I sell it for?’

To me, there are fundamental questions that should drive all the decisions about what to do about data. It is not just about finding prospects and leads, it is about every line on my balance sheet, income statement, cash flow statement, profit and loss statement, etc. These are where to find the Big Questions.

I remember one time not long ago in my career that I read a post on our internal social network about how IT needed to educate the business about the ‘Cloud’. I was in a saucy mood that day so I decided to respond “Don’t waste your time, they don’t care. Tell them how you are going to sell more X.” It’s hard to have someone smack down your passion for fashion so abruptly. I was not trying to be rude, just blunt. I consider it business tough love.

The way I see it, regardless of the size of the data, the power of data rest solely on understanding how the behavior of my customers integrates with the decisions made by my business. Of course, being in possession of the understanding, is not enough. The business must act on the understanding and then measure the effects of the action. Ideally, the outcome is a positive result for both customer and supplier. Depending on the characteristics of the business Big Data techniques may be useful and they may not.

My recommendation, when considering how to deal with Big Data, is to start with the Big Questions. See where the gaps are and come up with strategies to fill them in the short and long term. Big Data may indeed play a part and it may not. Remember, it’s not about the tools, it’s about the results.

Big Data can bring big answers. Big Questions can bring big value.

Image Credits:
Big Data image by Camelia Boban used under license from creative commons