Why Small Data Is the Next Big Thing for Marketers

Big Data is all the rage, and we can see why. The idea of uncovering hidden patterns about customer behavior and then predicting market demand (or election results) is certainly appealing. In fact, it’s so popular that last year Deloitte predicted that over 90% of Fortune 500 companies would have some Big Data initiatives under way by the end of 2012. More recently, Gartner projected that by 2017 the CMO will spend more on IT than will the CIO—certainly influenced by spending on new analytics tools and tricks.

But a funny thing has happened on the way to the ball. It turns out Big Data is hard. And it’s still mostly the domain of high-end consultants and data scientists, and under the control of IT departments rather than those of us that could actually use more insight in our day-to-day jobs. Plus, many organizations I examine still seem ill equipped to roll out Big Data in practical, measured steps and deliver the right data to the broadest set of nontechnical users like marketing teams. So, what’s the alternative?

Enter small data

Over the past year a movement has emerged around the idea of small data, which offers apps and tools that are simple for people who aren’t data scientists to use. Marketers can get the insight they need, insights and answers are delivered where users need them, and it’s super-easy to append new insights and even share them with colleagues.

I started writing about this idea in October 2012 in Forbes, to articulate that we need to reenvision the “last mile” of Big Data via consumer-style, more responsive, more social apps that help us turn insight into action. There’s also been some great work at the Open Knowledge Foundation in the UK, which is referenced in the small-data reading list I’ve started to compile.

For marketers, a small-data approach can be truly transformative and can help us regain control over our data assets. Here’s why:

First, Big Data is not for everyone. Doing it at scale and waiting for trickle-down benefits can take a lot of time (and money), assuming you even need full-on Big Data to target your campaigns or deliver personalized experiences. The tech guys want Big Data because it perpetuates a centralized model with big servers, big processes, and big budgets. Small data can help to break this cycle.

Second, the last mile of Big Data is really where the value is created. For Big Data fans, value needs to be the last V, joining Volume, Velocity, and Variety. Of course, as consumers we’ve seen the potential of delivering specific data, in context, on the device of our choice when we use Pandora or Foursquare or even Nike’s FuelBand (my favorite example of small data in a consumer product).

Third, adoption drives innovation and responsiveness. Consumers and businesses both benefit when more users have more insight, more quickly. An educated customer comes ready to buy. A savvy marketer with access to small data on their audience, segment, or location not only knows what products are in demand, but also when to run the campaign and where to target it.

Think global, act local

Thinking small also allows us to break down complex marketing problems and focus on what’s most important: the path to purchase. As I discussed in my small-data keynote talk at the Inbound Marketing Summit recently, our goals as marketers, as we look at ways to reach and engage distracted consumers, should be to tap our (small) data assets to better:

1. Inform our audience – Buyers pay attention if you’re saying something useful or unique, and you reach them when they are thinking about what you are saying. This means harnessing the power of storytelling and rich media, and also what we know about our market from transactional small data (purchase history, what’s in stock, etc.), to tailor campaigns and shorten the path to checkout.

2. Connect buyers with the brand (and each other) – Social listening and insights are rich with small data and can be incredibly valuable for finding and leveraging these connections. Plus, social comments, reviews, and testimonials can be powerful tools for amplifying your message and getting buyers ready to buy.

3. Motivate your audience – As marketers our goal is to drive action. No action, no ROI. And no ROI, no budget for marketing. The right data in the form of a recommendation or targeted offer or message can boost conversions and drive hard ROI. Being a good motivator also means anticipating what your audience needs, and being tuned into where they are by leveraging environmental small data like location and device information.

There’s a huge opportunity for marketers who embrace this practical view and become advocates in their organizations for making analytics more approachable, actionable, and accessible. This is not about replacing Big Data, but rather bringing its power to the masses to create more educated, more connected buyers and sellers.

Allen Bonde is partner and principal analyst at Digital Clarity Group, He tweets at @abonde and shares his insights on the small-data movement at Small Data Group.

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