Big Data doesn't mean great advertising

The digital marketing industry is obsessed by data. In fact, let’s take that statement even further. The world is obsessed by data, and to illustrate the point let’s use a stat straight from the Big Data world – IBM recently said that over 90% of the world’s data was collected over the last 2 years. Wow!

Digital marketing’s data obsession can be defined as the drive to collect information related to a customer or potential customer’s behaviour; everything from where they, the websites they visit andthe device they use.   

Marketers have tonnes of data at their eager little fingertips, and they have found plenty of intelligent ways to use that data. Product recommendations, behavioural-targeted ads, personalised browsing experiences and display ads that seem to follow you from desktop to mobile and back again. All worthwhile advances in digital marketing and all brought to us courtesy of the explosion in data storage, mining and application that’s more universally known as ‘Big Data’.  

Every marketing channel is now on the data bandwagon. TV uses consumer data to target its ads to different users or households. Launched this year, OpenAP is the first programmatic platform specifically for TV. Large bricks and mortar stores even use predicative customer purchasing data to better merchandise their products. The application of data to engage us with more things and sell us more stuff seems endless. Yet it’s not all plain sailing in the data world. Certainly not for consumers, and not even for the marketers who treat data collection as one step removed from the Holy Grail.

A study from BlueVenn called Data Deadlock went largely unnoticed earlier this year, but included an eye-catching piece of research. Of 600 UK and US marketing professionals, 86% of them thought they collected too much data. More worryingly, despite the endless supply of consumer information being funnelled towards marketers, more than half said they still didn’t have a good enough understanding of their customers’ behaviour.

Of course, this doesn’t stop every marketing services provider worth their salt – and some that aren’t worth anything on your dinner table at all – using data as the key selling point for their businesses. Data to improve ad targeting, accuracy, reliability, cost efficiency. Merging multiple data-sets together, enriching your own first-party data, using data for competitor benchmarking…the list of apparent opportunities for marketing providers to use the data angle to sell their services to a prospective client is endless. Yet there remains a major gulf between the marketing data that is being collected and its practical application to improve advertising for consumers.  

If you work in marketing ‘actionable insight’ will be as familiar to you as your mother’s name. Every analytics or business intelligence solution promises to unlock these gems for your business. Yet it’s not easy. Forrester reported last year that 74% of companies say they want to be “data-driven,” but only 29% are actually successful at connecting analytics to action.

I recently attended a conference where the advent of serious data analysis in digital marketing was compared to advances in predicting the weather. The more data we’ve been able to collect on the weather, the more accurately we’ve been able to predict it. A sensible conclusion. However, the correlation between access to more data and better advertising needs serious questioning.

Certainly companies collect more data on their customers than ever before. But just because marketers have access to more information doesn’t automatically translate to better advertising. Great data doesn’t mean great ads. In fact, the trend seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Maybe digital marketing’s data obsession has undermined a key principle of advertising; focus on the consumer. 

In May Choozle released the results of an interesting study on consumer behaviour which said only 7% of respondents viewed online ads positively. And in a somewhat amusing side note the survey size was halved right off the bat because 53% of respondents used an ad blocker that disqualified them!

The digital channel that I cut my teeth in, Affiliate, has embraced the buzzword bingo world that is ‘data’ wholeheartedly. Yet beyond some clever and interesting post-campaign analysis I haven’t seen a practical example where data has been used to improve the level of advertising the channel can deliver to consumers. Affiliate marketing’s execution of data can best be described as lots of huff and bluster with very little end product. And I don’t mean that unkindly, because the same can be said for other digital disciplines too.

I am a huge advocate of the need for intelligent attribution analysis in marketing that can take and analyse data from the many independent channels and provide proper understanding on the relative contribution of those channels. The premise of attribution is more data equals better understanding. And in most cases it does. But digital marketing needs to decouple its thinking. Data may be improving understanding and analysis. But it is not improving advertising in the minds of the people that matter – the consumers. 

The biggest single example of data’s disconnect with the consumer is the forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which will be passed into law in the EU next year. The GDPR encourages marketers to prioritise customer privacy over mass data collection. It’s borne directly from the concern of consumers about how their online data is used by companies to market to them. Will it derail marketing’s data gravy train? It is certainly telling, ironic, and perhaps unsurprising, that as marketers become more reliant on data, the legislative bodies charged with protecting the public’s interest are making customer data harder to collect and less accessible than it’s ever been before. The future of Big Data for digital marketing has never been more interesting, or less clear.