Not So Fast! 7 Hurdles to the Big Data Revolution

Big data illustration from 8 September 2011 ComputingBig Data. It’s remarkable how two little words have created such outsized buzz this year.

We’ve been told that big data will revolutionize marketing, make our advertising more relevant and efficient, and ultimately transform entire businesses and industries. This is all likely true, and some companies are already employing big data to great competitive advantage.

But behind the big data hype are a few realities that threaten to stall the revolution.

Marketers are Overwhelmed.

According to Forrester, 68% of marketers plan to increase data-related marketing spending this year. That’s an impressive figure, underscoring the promise marketers see in big data and its potential applications. Yet, nearly half of these same marketers say analyzing the data will be their biggest marketing challenge. That’s quite a disconnect. After all, we know that the power of big data isn’t the data itself; it’s the insights that come from the data.

Who Will Analyze the Data?

Our industry has a shortage of data scientists–experts who can separate the insights from the noise. According to numerous reports, the majority of businesses say they plan to hire new employees to help take advantage of big data. A recent study by Gartner estimates 4.4 million new big data jobs will be created by 2015… filling them will be the challenge.

Data Still Lives in Silos. 

Just as marketing channels have long existed in silos, so does the data generated by each channel. While there are many third-party companies working on cross-channel data and targeting solutions, bridging clients’ own data across systems will take time.

Not All Data is Created Equal.

As my fellow ClickZ columnist and Acxiom executive Dana Hayes recently wrote, “Not all data is good. Not all data is useful. Not all insights drive value.” How true. While many marketers have yet to activate the trove of first-party data they have within their own systems, making sure that the data itself–along with any third-party licensed data–is clean, accurate and useful will be a prerequisite to delivering on big data’s promise. 

Big Data is a Means to an End

As with all marketing, you need to start with your business goals and strategies, not your tactics. With so many marketers jumping on the big data bandwagon, I worry we’re entering another “check-the-box” bubble (here are tips to avoid this fate). At its heart, big data is about providing insights to real, live human beings, to drive tangible business results.

Experts reveal we still have a long way to go setting ourselves up to use big data successfully. “Most marketers haven’t yet mapped their business goals to trackable KPIs,” said Michael Perlman, SVP of Media at Millward Brown Digital, at Advertising Week in September.

The P-word 

Advertising Age had a whole issue devoted to big data recently and one thing was loud and clear: there are very real privacy, data ownership, and security concerns that still need to be addressed. “There’s a lot at stake,” David Gibson, VP of marketing at Varonis, said during Advertising Week. “We have a lot of client data and a lot of power.” As Gibson noted, we as an industry will have to get it right if we want this movement to become a revolution.

A Major Shift in Mindset 

Assuming we clear each of the above hurdles, we face yet another challenge: making a giant shift in our marketing mindset.

Marketers have always relied on data to support our decisions, but we’ve also relied on gut instinct. Celebrated marketers around the globe often talk about the moment where the “big idea” came to them. To most of us, marketing is a little bit science and a little bit magic–the data proves (or disproves) our hypotheses.

But in this new big data world, as Richard Frankel, President & Founder of Rocketfuel, said at the same Advertising Week session, “Insights are now the by-product of great results. Insights aren’t hopes of what might work, they’re proof of what happened.”

This is a fundamental shift in mindset for marketers, and one that will take time.

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