Forget Big Data


People in our industry love big data. Or at least they love the idea of big data.

It’s one of those hot topics that fills our feeds, our conference agendas and the pages of our trade magazines. But it’s a hot topic largely because we have been told it’s a hot topic. The reality is that big data is not really of much use to us.

Indeed if think we are actually making use of big data, what ever we are talking about is probably not big data at all. By definition big data refers to those data sets that are so large or complex that traditional data processing applications are inadequate.

No wonder most organisations look at their data in despair. They appear to have loads of the stuff but don’t know what to do with it. After all there are few people that have access to both the software and the thousands of servers that have any chance of making this data meaningful. And most of those businesses are called Google. Big data is just like the rest of the junk information that swills around the most organisations, useless and completely lacking in any useable insight.

And I worry that in the rather obsessive way that we have approached big data, we have lost sight of the power of little data. Little data is the real friend of the marker, not it’s overhyped sibling because Little data is what really gets things done in our world.

When Mattessons Fridge Raiders created FRHANK, the world’s first artificially intelligent game playing robot earlier this year it was not because of big data but two bits of little data. The 5 million kids that are home alone after school and are usually absolutely starving 61% of whom are gaming.

When the Department of Transport in the UK launched the 30 for a Reason campaign aimed at reducing the number of deaths of young people killed by speeding motorists, it was because of a piece of little data. That if you hit a child at 40 mile per hour there is an 80% chance that they will be killed but if you hit them at 30 miles per hour there is an 80% chance that they will live.

When Old Spice brought Isaiah Mustafa to our screens to suggest he was the man your man could smell like it was because they knew that 60% of all men’s body wash was bought by women. Little data.

When Sainsbury’s asked us all to Try Something New Today it was because the knew that they needed to generate £1.14 more revenue on every sale in order to reach an incremental revenue objective of £2.5bn.

And responding to the realization that kids in the USA will now live 5 years less than their parent, the Michelle Obama Foundation and Nike asked what those kids might do with the extra five years. Good old little data.

Now, if these bits of little data seem exciting to you, like they were clearly instrumental in the genesis of good work that solved real problems then you’d have to agree that they are few and far between. I’m sure you would be able to ferret out a few more and in truth I would be hugely grateful if you did – to help make the case for little data. But for all that big data seeping from every organizational orifice, sharp and potent bits of little data are hard to hunt down and employ. Not least because half of us are obsessed with their big brothers and the other half seem to run for the hills every time the idea of data is raised.

However, as strategists and marketers we should be instrumental in finding the little data upon which a strategy or an idea can turn. It is little data of which we should be devotees because it is little data that actively getting stuff done while those obsessed with big data are still drinking poor quality coffee at all their conferences.

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8 Replies to “Forget Big Data”

  1. Simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication (Leonardo da Vinci). well done!
    Tend to agree with Dan Gibson though. Trouble with Big Data, like for Digital Marketing, is that it is like teenage sex (see the famous: everybody talks about it etc. etc.). Bottom line: just like teen age sex it involves lots of messy dirty ugly stuff before you really learn to do it properly and enjoy it in style.
    At the end of the day, as usual, it is only technology, only as good as those using it.
    Keep the flag of humanism high…

  2. I remember reading that people who were empathetic towards motor-cyclists were less likely to have accidents with them – there was a statistical difference.
    So the campaign switched from Think Bike to Think Biker, to put a friendly face to the dark-visored scary types associated with the vehicle, and to make us all feel more positive about them, and notice them better.

    1. Jeremy, I love that idea. Led to the campaign with the names of bikers over their heads. Great insight.

  3. I just want to jump in there to moderate slightly the debate around big data.
    I must recognize that I do agree with you that Big Data is an inflated buzz word that appeared a couple of years ago, almost suddenly, in Marketing magazines (and in TED conferences…). I reckon they all seemingly yelled in one common voice: ” We have now the tools to analyze Big Data!!!” to give legitimacy to the next big thing. The question is “so what?”

    Coming from the digital world, I believe that Big Data can provide tremendous insights in understanding people’s behavior just by how they use technology.
    By aggregating the data from different sources, we are able today to forecast the traffic in public transport, traffic jam in cities, know if mums with kids 8-12 go mostly in stores during the weekend vs. the rest of the week, what are the most popular areas of X,Y,Z sites that dads like to spend time on etc etc…

    Ultimately, by refining the big data we can flesh out a bit more the behavior of a targeted audience which will lead to a small data, or what you would call: insights.

    It is not only about the eye of the world aka Google. It is also about working with 3rd party providers, data miners, smart strategists, creative technologists, designers who are able to back up assumptions with stats, which we can then use to support your business strategy.

    Big data itself does not mean anything. It looks cold, arrogant and ugly.
    At the end it is the story, the meaning we are willing to give to big data.


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