There is a lot of hype around the notion of “big data”. It is being talked about all over the place, from the op-ed page of the NY Times to being the topic of one of Hubspot’s predictions for 2013

while Gartner also predicts big data will drive $232 billion in IT spending through 2016, so far, it has been for engineers — not marketers. In 2013, however, we expect to see a rise of startups that are dedicated to making big data more accessible to folks on the front end, such as salespeople, business development reps, and marketing professionals

Much of the hype is justified since “big data” has the potential to make businesses more effective, especially if it can become more accessible to people like marketers, as noted in the Hubspot prediction. At the same time, the term, “big data”, is misleading because it is not just about the data. In order for business people – and marketers, in particular – to realize value from “big data”, it will take a lot more than having the right technology to manage all of the data.

In this post, we will introduce the notion of “big data for marketers” – what it is, why should you care, why the time is ripe to start thinking about it (if you aren’t already), and most importantly, what it will take to make it happen within your organization. But first, let’s start with a baseline definition of “big data”…

“Big data” is a term used to refer to the collection, processing, and usage of data sets so large that it becomes difficult to manage with traditional data management tools, like relational databases. The term emerged as the use of the Internet exploded, which has resulted in massive amounts of data being generated on a daily basis. This data includes: clickstream data that captures people’s interactions on websites; social media updates being made on services like Facebook and Twitter; location information constantly being transmitted from mobile devices; and much more.

Much of the hype devoted to “big data” so far has been associated with the emergence of new data management technologies that can handle the storage and processing of data volumes that have never been experienced before. As a result, much of the attention has been towards technologists and engineers, as they put their arms around this problem. As the data management capabilities of these new technologies mature, attention is now shifting towards emerging end user-facing applications that can deliver valuable information and insight to business users, like marketers.

Marketers are a particularly relevant – if not the most important – segment of users who can benefit greatly from “big data” applications. This is because a lot of the data generated online – social, mobile, video, display, search, website, etc. – is marketing related and is valuable for marketers to gain a better understanding of things like customer behavior and channel effectiveness. Getting one’s arms around all of this marketing data, however, is extremely challenging for a variety of reasons…there is so much of it; it comes in different varieties; it is generated at a fast pace; and it is highly fragmented (i.e., a single user can have so many touch points related to a particular product). Marketers who meet the challenge will have a significant advantage over their competitors.

Currently, many marketers have access to data being offered by the various digital marketing services. This data offers a good snapshot of what is happening within a particular service. To fully take advantage of “big data”, however, we think it is important for marketers to:

– Develop a list of actionable insights. Take a step back and try to understand what insights your organization needs in order to take action and improve its key business objectives. When doing this, don’t constrain your thinking to metrics you currently receive from the various services you use. Think “outside the box”. This is an area where human knowledge and intuition is critical. Often times, valuable insight will be gained by analyzing data across multiple services. For example, it would be valuable to understand what social media activity, if any, has an impact on improving your company’s sales. In order to gain this insight, it is not only important to look at data across the various social media channels your company uses (which by itself is not easy to do), but it is also important to correlate that information with sales data.

– Evaluate application solutions. New “big data for marketing” applications, such as the one we are building at Origami Logic, are becoming available in the market. These applications are focused exclusively on delivering value to marketers. Some of them employ innovative data science techniques to correlate disparate types of data and help humans make sense of it all. Many of the solutions also take care of managing the data so your IT organization won’t have to implement a new “big data” technology infrastructure.

– Get the organization ready. This is probably the most important issue. As mentioned earlier, “big data” is not just about the data and finding the right technologies. A key element to making this all work is getting the organization in the proper mindset. Many of the challenges in the digital marketing world are due to the fact that there are so many services generating data, each with their own analytics, so an organization develops a “silo mindset”. However, in order to gain valuable insights into what is happening, an organization needs to overcome this mindset and they need to think of things holistically (like in the “how social media affects sales” example described above). This shift in thinking affects an organization at many levels, from the way marketing analysts specify the metrics they need, to the manner in which data is shared across different departments. A good first step would be to have the owners of your different digital channels (social, search, web, etc.), or the owners of your different marketing functions (acquisition, retention, etc.), meet on a regular basis to compare notes on how their respective data sets might help each other achieve broader business goals.

In conclusion, “big data” is not a cure-all that will suddenly make all marketers great. However, for those organizations who are looking to get a leg up against the competition, the time is right to begin understanding how their marketers can tap into “big data” and gain new insights that will make them more effective.