The problem with big data

June 3, 2013 | by Jeff Weidauer

What are you doing about big data? That is a question making the rounds with retailers today. Or turned around it’s, “What am I supposed to do about big data?” The problem with these questions is that they miss the point entirely. In fact, the whole discussion about big data is often missing the point.

Talking about big data is like talking about which operating system the Mars lander Curiosity uses. It’s interesting if you’re a programmer; the rest of us just want to know what’s up there. Big data is a means to an end, but we talk about it like it’s the point. For retail marketers, big data provides a method to derive useful, predictive insights that can generate incremental sales and drive loyalty from shoppers.

The questions should be, “How can I better understand my shoppers, their motivations, and help them solve what’s for dinner tonight?” These are questions that big data can help to answer, but it will take more than just a massive data warehouse to get there.

Data in and of itself doesn’t solve anything. There is no point in gathering shopper data and storing it without a plan to mine that data. And big data is more than just big. The whole point of these datasets — often described in unfamiliar terms like exabytes and petabytes — is to use them to discover answers to questions we could never answer before, or in some cases, even think to ask. Questions like how to deliver what shoppers want, when they want it, and at a price they are willing to pay can now be answered through the analysis of big data.

The key word in all of this is “predictive,” as in being able to predict what a shopper will do with a given set of influencers, based on what the data says about her behavior. With the right analysis, we can learn the best way to communicate with the shopper, what need state she’s likely to be in on a particular day and at a particular time, and how open she is likely to be to new ideas, or if we’re better off providing a known offer.

This might sound a little creepy. There is a fine line between relevance and intrusiveness when delving in this deeply. But it will be those who dare to venture this far, while being careful not to go too far, who will win the battle for shopper loyalty.

The digital revolution has changed the way we shop — forever. There is no turning back. It also must change the way we go to market. There is no turning back there either. And while big data will help to provide the answers, we first have to make sure we’re asking the right questions.

Topics: Consumer Behavior , Omnichannel / Multichannel , Technology

Jeff Weidauer / Jeff Weidauer is vice president of marketing and strategy for Vestcom, a provider of integrated shopper marketing solutions. With over 30 years of retail experience, Jeff is a prominent speaker, writer and expert source to retailers, brands and media on shopper marketing and the evolving retail industry.
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