Even though we're only half way through the year, it's already likely that the history books will remember "big data" as ...

Data: It’s big, but is it clever?

Even though we're only half way through the year, it's already likely that the history books will remember "big data" as the big industry buzzword of 2013. It's a panacea for all our marketing woes. Every unsuccessful campaign, ever, can be put down to a lack of big data.

Yup, this time, we've finally cracked it. No matter what the problem, it can be solved by big data. And the more you have, the better your campaign becomes. Because the more granular your knowledge, the more effective your campaigns must be. Whatever the problem, the answer is bigger data.

Or at least, that's the theory. But there are several things wrong with this statement.

1. Data isn't the same thing as intelligence

There's an enormous leap required to get from "facts" to "truth" that data alone can’t bridge[AA1] . Data alone doesn't sell anything. If you've decided on the wrong strategy, all the data in the world won't help. It’ll just reinforce your belief in your bad strategy.

“Ah, but data defines strategy,” you say. But while data can inform, it can't provide insight. It can show you how to reach your goals -- but it can't tell you what your goals should be.

For example, you may uncover data that supports a strategy targeting high-value consumers. You may earn more money in the short run, but what happens if your strategy also causes your market share to diminish in the long run -- leading to fewer high value consumers and falling profits?

“Ah,” the big data enthusiasts say. “This outcome will be predicted by big data! We'll help you avoid it!” But we know that less than 1% of data collected is ever analysed[AA2] . Most facts are based on an incomplete analysis at best and are cherry-picked to fit an agenda at worst. Big data relies on intelligent interpretation to be of value. Otherwise it’s lies, damned lies and statistics[AA3] .

2. Data can't predict the unpredictable

Unless someone has invented a time machine they're not telling us about, all data collected refers exclusively to past events. And, as we're told before investing in anything, "past performance is no guarantee of future results".

"But big data can predict future outcomes!" advocates insist. And they're right. But only when people behave predictably, logically, the way they're expected. And how often do people do that?

How quickly we forget. "Big data" may be the buzzword of 2013, but the undisputed buzzword of 2012 was "disruptive" -- the ability of businesses to introduce new technologies that cause unpredictable and game-changing results.

Big data, by its very definition, can't predict unpredictable, "black swan" events[AA4] . Big data can't account for disruption. Most importantly, big data doesn't allow for revolutionary, disruptive thinking. It encourages you to play it safe.

Henry Ford once said "If I asked my customers what they wanted, they'd have said 'a faster horse'". Instead, he gave them something else.

Relying on big data stifles creative thinking and limits us to literally "thinking inside the box" of set, statistical parameters based on past results.

Data should enable us to expand our horizons. Instead we use it to limit them.

3. Data slows down decision making and prevents entrepreneurial risk-taking

In his new book, Predatory Thinking[AA5] , Dave Trott argues that logic is simply the superstition of western culture and that people who think differently often achieve results. He says that "we depend on what should work, not what does work... if an ad campaign is researched enough, it should work, that's that."

Dave cites two examples of people who dared to think differently:

Richard Branson’s strategy is to start work on whatever excites his team. Only one in five ideas is successful, but "if they tried to avoid having the failures, they wouldn't have had the successes."

Akio Morita, the founder of Sony, said "the greatest assistance I had in building my company was the total failure of nerve on the part of Western businessmen to move without research."

If you don't think these guys are scientific enough to be believable, listen to Albert Einstein:

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

To put it another way[AA6] , big data will “help us see the world as it is, but will it help us see the world as it could be?”

So is big data bad?

Of course not. It makes sense to make informed decisions.

But belief in big data has become a kind of blind faith -- a belief that more data is all you need to make better decisions. Intuition is bad. Statistics are good. It's simply not that black and white.

Intuition is as valuable as big data.

Acting on a hunch, rather than waiting for all the research, can give you an edge over a slower, more cautious competitor. Big data can provide valuable insight, but it can be fallible -- because the people interpreting it are fallible, because the strategy is wrong, because your goals are wrong, because you can't plan for the unexpected.

Perhaps most importantly, big data relies on people behaving rationally. They don't. They behave emotionally. [AA7] Do you think big data could predict the outcome of a hand of poker? Of course not. You use the stats available to make an informed decision. But ultimately, you go with your gut. Data should be the servant of intuition, not the other way around.

With big data, the old adage is true. It's not how big it is, it's what you do with it that counts.

By Alastaire Allday, Copywriter @alldaycreative








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