Last week, Mark Schaefer published a blog post with the provocative title, "Why Big Data will go away soon." In this post, Mark argued that, for the next five years or so, the ability to analyze and extract insights from big data will be a critical skill for marketers. But then, Mark says, technology will make it so easy to use data in marketing that the complex aspects of data analytics will become invisible to most of us.
Here's now Mark described the not-too-distant future:
"In the foreseeable future, I can definitely see a time when we won't have to worry about specifying the correct statistical test or making sure your data is 'cleaned up.' You'll simply ask your device a question about your customers or competitors and it will know what data to pull, what analysis to run, and how to interpret the results.
. . .
In this new environment, we won't think about the Big Data that is fueling those answers just like we don't think about the sophisticated electronics at work when we are flying to a business meeting or responding to an email. It's just there. It just works. We don't know how, we don't care how. We don't give it a name. The Marketing Answer Machine will be our best friend."
Mark's view of the future is probably accurate in many ways. I think it's very likely that data analytics software will become easier and easier to use and that the complex, "heavy lifting" stuff will increasingly occur in the background, most likely overseen by a small group of "data scientists."
But, will the "Marketing Answer Machine" really provide all of the customer insights we need to optimize our marketing activities and produce successful marketing programs? I'm not so sure.
In a recent blog post for the Harvard Business Review, Charles Handy eloquently explained why we should view the "infosphere" - the combination of the Internet and computer technology - as a mixed blessing. Charles Handy is one of the most influential management thinkers of the past thirty-plus years and the author of more than a dozen books, including The Age of Unreason and The Age of Paradox.
While Mr. Handy's post deals primarily with the potential negative impacts of data and technology on individuals, organizations, and society in general, he has a message about the limitations of data that marketers need to remember. He wrote:
"Today's technologies would like to reclassify us bundles of data - be they words, numbers, or images - that the infosphere can process more easily. . . This kind of algorithmic society, with its programmes [sic] and routines, will take the stress out of life - but also much of its meaning if we let it.
This meaning is rooted in our consciousness, which cannot be coded or made into data. Nor can the virtues of beauty, truth, or goodness, which you recognize when you see them but cannot adequately measure or define. Love, trust, loyalty, and judgement [sic] - the essentials of our human relationships - are also immune to sensible quantification. Trying to codify them is pointless."
It would be unreasonable to suggest that having and using relevant and accurate data about current and potential customers won't help marketers make better decisions and create more effective marketing programs. But it's equally unreasonable to believe that data and data analytics are all that's necessary for successful marketing.
Virtually all of the data about customers and prospects that we track and use is behavioral data. Behavioral data can tell us what a potential buyer has done (and often when and where an action was taken), but behavioral data doesn't reveal the psychological and/or emotional factors that motivated the behavior, and it doesn't tell us much about the context in which a behavior occurs.
Big data is seductive because it appears to give us a highly detailed picture of our potential customers, but despite the detail, big data provides only part of the "customer intelligence" we need for effective marketing. It's like having a high-resolution version of half of the Mona Lisa.