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What is the big deal about big data

22.05.2013

What's all this infatuation with “data” as the be-all-end-all of direct marketing? Data has been instrumental in telling marketers when and to whom they should send marketing messages for at least three or four thousand years. But if you want proof that data alone are the royalty of marketing, you don't have to dig any deeper than any and every situation in which two creative sources, equipped with and working from identical data, generate widely different results. (In this paragraph you'll read both data is and data are because data is a plural word, but through usage the word has become singular. So for reader comfort we'll use singular and plural interchangeably from this point forward.)

All right. Repeat after me: In a marketing situation, analysis cannot compete with salesmanship. If you're involved in the direct marketing universe--and you probably are if you're reading this publication-chances are you already have sufficient competitive experiences to share that conclusion. But somehow, the phrase Big Data has pounded its way into the go-for-the-jugular advantage direct response has over other sales approaches.


Fixation on the word
I'm looking at an article in a marketing publication (no, not this one) that spouts the newly classic dogma: “Big data can make every experience personal, delivering consumer satisfaction and ROI”. Huh? We can't reject the concept outright, because of “can make” instead of the more assertive “will make”; what we can add is the significant terminus: “coupled with powerful targeted copy”.
It isn't the data that delivers consumer satisfaction; it's the professional application of data.

It may be that the very bulk of data has terrorised our little industry into beatifying the phrase Big Data. IBM sends the frightening number: “Every day, we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data-so much that 90 percent of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone.” Immediately IBM turns us off by overstatement: “Sometimes 2 minutes is too late. For time-sensitive processes such as catching fraud, big data must be used as it streams into your enterprise in order to maximise its value.”

The ever-dependable Wikipedia adds its own touch of trepidation: “What is considered 'big data' varies depending on the capabilities of the organisation managing the set, and on the capabilities of the applications that are traditionally used to process and analyse the data set in its domain. For some organisations, facing hundreds of gigabytes of data for the first time may trigger a need to reconsider data management options. For others, it may take tens or hundreds of terabytes before data size becomes a significant consideration.”

Believe it or not, a Microsoft executive, Eron Kelly, injected some sanity into the mix: 

“While it is true that the industry needs more data scientists, it is equally true that most organisations are equipped with the employees they need today to help them gather the valuable insights from their data that will better their business.” A leavening statement from Microsoft? Wonders never cease.

Is “creative” obsolete?

Fanatics who represent the intemperate fringe of any religion invariably dismiss any encroaching competitor. That doesn't elevate them to a Nostradamus level.
Every one of us has to subscribe to this dictum: Specifics outpull generalisations. Ignoring that reality invariably means reduced response. And data are the feeder-mechanism that nourishes us with specifics. So we shouldn't, make that can't, bypass our data-feeds.

Armed with data, as we have been for hundreds of generations, we who toil in the creative dungeons can smile, nod, and go about the business of convincing target-prospects that what we're offering is what they need. Our icon doesn't have to be any more complicated than the venerable Emotion-Over-Intellect Principle: When emotion and intellect come into conflict, emotion always wins. Creative is emotional. Data is (or are) intellectual. Case made.

As backup, we can lean on the five Great Motivators of this decade, because all five are founded in emotion rather than intellect: Fear, Exclusivity, Greed, Guilt, and Need for Approval. We even can fold in the two “soft” motivators, Convenience and Pleasure. And of course we include Anger, the specialised motivator, reserved for copy focused on one facet of fundraising.

Okay, got all that? Now, send me the data so I can get started on the next copy assignment. Oh, I'm competing with another copywriter? Hmmm. Don't bother sending all that data to him or her. It'll just confuse somebody who's already confused enough by information whose primary value is only to the group that gathered it.

Herschell Gordon Lewis is president of Lewis Enterprises. He writes copy for and consults with direct response and catalogue companies worldwide.