Vast quantities of customer information are now flowing into businesses from social media, smartphones, bots, GPS devices, cameras, appliances, and satellites, and increasingly sophisticated computer algorithms are attempting to turn it all into actionable intelligence of some sort.
For marketers and brand managers, the prospect of knowing more about customers’ lives, habits, and desires than ever before is understandably exciting. But amid all the excitement, it should not be forgotten that few businesspeople—even C-level executives—truly understand what a revolutionary force Big Data is, or the disruptive threat it represents for businesses of all kinds.
While you are preparing to take maximum advantage of all the glorious opportunities Big Data offers, keep in mind that the devil in Big Data could be in these overlooked details:
1. Secure Your Data
For companies that are collecting and storing vast amounts of customer data, the most obvious threat is a massive security breach of the sort that has plagued Target Corp, Home Depot, and J.P. Morgan Chase. Hundreds of other companies have experienced similar data breaches in the past couple of years, all because the people hacking into corporate databases have been more ingenious and persistent than the people trying to keep them out.
The Solution: Better security in the Big Data era doesn’t must mean a well-intentioned policy review—it means committing to a long-term investment in the infrastructure and personnel needed to safeguard what is rapidly becoming every organization’s more important asset: it’s customer data. The more people trust companies with their personal information, the more companies need to be worthy of that trust.
2. Try Not to Drown
Big Data isn’t just about more information; it’s about exponentially huge tsunamis of information coming from all directions at once, at speeds and volumes humanity has never seen before. The possibility of drowning in all this data is very real. So is the possibility of wasting a lot of time, energy, and resources wading through oceans of irrelevant data. The challenge going forward will be extracting the data you need from the data you don’t—and the hard lesson many organizations will have to learn is that too much information is just as useless as not enough—or not the right kind—of information.
The Solution: Try to be as specific as possible about the kinds data that would be useful to know. Data itself is getting ever more granular, so the sieve for sifting it needs to get more refined as well. Narrow your focus. Define your parameters. And don’t forget to ask the obvious questions, such as: If you could communicate with a customer, in real time, at the moment they are deciding between your brand and someone else’s, what would you say to them—and how?
3. Don’t Get Outsmarted
It has never been easier for a few people with an idea to mount a competitive challenged to even the most established businesses—and in the era of Big Data, size is not necessarily a strength. Big Data will open up cracks and fissures in the marketing landscape that others can easily exploit. Anyone who tries can be a potential competitive threat, if not an existential one.
The Solution: No matter what size an organization is, systems need to be in place to keep at least part of the organization operating as if it is a small, hungry start-up. Much more energy needs to go into market research, competitive intelligence, and ear-to-the-Internet scouting, because when change is swift and constant, competitive threats can come out of nowhere, in no time, and do a great deal of damage.
4. Mind the Store
In addition to the consumer side of Big Data, companies in the next few years will be dealing with ever-larger amounts of internally generated data. In many organizations, however, information is still siloed in different departments—accounting, engineering, manufacturing, marketing, IT, etc.—preventing departments from sharing useful information with each other. Companies that figure out how to communicate more transparently without destroying the practical advantages of silos and departments will have a competitive advantage in the future.
The Solution: Data management is a challenge for everyone, but a big part of that challenge is finding people with the experience and training necessary to serve the company’s needs, especially as it grows. Superior education and training of data-management personnel will pay huge dividends down the road, even if it seems like an unnecessary expense now.
5. Listen to the Machine
As organizations evolve, silo walls are broken down, and data analysis becomes an increasingly important business process, there will inevitably come a time when the data suggests that big changes need to be made. As more and more decisions are dictated by data-driven analytics, one of the hardest things for people to do will be to let go let the machines decide. Unfortunately, the decision might be important, and the machine might be right.
The Solution: Listen to what the data is telling you, and try to use it as intelligently as possible. Don’t abandon your instincts or intuition—but do use all the information available to inform your gut decision. Otherwise, your gut might betray you.
6. Instant Dissatisfaction
One of the downsides of an intimate personal connection with customers is an intimate personal connection with customers who are angry or dissatisfied. These days, every customer has in the palm of their hands the means to let the world know how unsatisfied they are, and they rather enjoy using that power. And as every marketer knows, one angry customer can cause a lot of damage.
The Solution: As always, responsiveness is the key to customer service, and every disgruntled customer can, with the right response, be converted into a brand champion. Fortunately, the same technology that allows customers to register their dissatisfaction also allows companies to address issues and concerns more or less instantaneously. The more instantaneous the response, the better for everyone.
Owen Shapiro is the author of Brand Shift: The Future of Brands and Marketing. Shapiro is a market researcher, strategist and speaker and spent more than 30 years in customer insights and market strategy. He has a career-long interest in helping launch innovative start-up companies, several of which have become well-known brands, including Staples, PetSmart, Sports Authority, Ulta and Five Below.