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Is more data always better?

Posted: 30th March, 2012 | 4 comments

One of the pushbacks we get when talking to marketers about VPI (Volunteered Personal Information) goes like this: “Oh no! You are talking about yet another source of data. I’m already awash with data! In fact I’ve got so much data that I don’t know what to do with it! Now you are asking me to take on even more!”

In fact, what we are suggesting is something far more radical – and simple. Marketers find themselves awash with lots of useless data because they haven’t got the few special bits of data they really need.

To communicate effectively with someone – about the right thing, at the right time –  you only need three pieces of information: who they are, what they want, when.

Er … that’s it.

Every consumer in buying mode knows who they are, what they want, and when. And they could be empowered to make this information available.

But our current system doesn't allow for this. Because it's a top-down push model, it's based on marketers sending messages to audiences, not eliciting the information they need from the people they want to deal with.

So marketers need to invent work-arounds and proxies. They run after transaction data, online behavioural data, social media data, geodemographic data, audience and media consumption data, psychographic data. Having collected (or purchased) these vast data sets, they then need to connect the dots – to create a coherent picture of their target audiences and likely buying preferences.

This is the 'holy grail of closed loop marketing' I talked about before.  In fact, the end result is a gigantic, unwieldy, massively expensive,  over-complex and higgledy piggeldy Heath Robinson contraption where some screw is always missing (where some data is missing or not being connected in the right way) and where all the contraption can create (even at the best of times) is guesswork leading to high levels of waste and error

This is the God Quest in reality: a massive piece of displacement activity, designed to compensate for the fact that those three simple pieces of information - who I am, what I want, when – are missing.

No wonder marketers despair.

The bottom line is this. VPI – empowering individuals with voice as well as choice, in their dealings with organisations as well as each other via social networking – offers an opportunity for radical simplification; for needing less data not more. It puts an end to today’s syndrome of ‘data, data, everywhere and not a bit to use’.

Behind this lies some big issues. We need the right infrastructure to make this sort of data sharing easy and efficient. And the right trust framework. Why should I give marketers information about me if  all they’re going to do is sell it on or spam me?.

But behind these big issues lies a simple point. This debate isn't just about ‘Big Data’ versus ‘Small Data’.  There is another layer to it. Sometimes more is worse and less is better. And in the case of VPI, less can be a lot better.

Alan Mitchell



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Howard King

Submitted on 14/06/2012

This is essentially what both Google and Facebook do in enabling users to tinker with your advertising preferences, rating or opting out of certain adverts. (If they can win my trust, maybe I’ll store ALL my personal data with those guys one day?)

But what if consumers don’t know your product well enough to decide whether it would be a better choice or them over your competitor’s product? Should marketers ignore acquisition altogether?

Above the line and brand marketing works to stimulate front of mind, and it’s here to stay.


Submitted on 13/04/2012

Sorry for my very approximative english. But I’m french… Lucid and very interesting analysis. Thank you for this current of fresh air in a field where we hear everything and its opposite. Most of the answers to the Big Data phenomenon stand out of the illusion that it is relevant to give the data a comportementalement workable meaning to 1 / store it 2 / processed in double registry of datastorage and statistic treatement. It appears more and more to exploit really operationally (i.e. 1 / fast 2 / essential) it is important to focus more to data flow analysis (and not stored) and the identification of singularities more than constants.
Flow management, principles of essentiality, singularities: the emergence of a new paradigm which will continue because of the inability of the financial resources of companies to follow the explosion of data to manage.

Rob Kenley

Submitted on 10/04/2012

Hi Alan,

Having also spoken to senior marketers who work in some of the largest organisations about this new model of customer engagement, unless you are able to provide the answers to these three fundamental questions at scale, most if not all are yet not willing to change their current broadcast approach to marketing.

Their organisation-centric view also prevents them from using PIMS as a route to finding the answers to these questions. Most still prefer to use mass market, survey approaches to get answers to these questions and continue to push sales messages through broadcast media. I also think the current ‘pay for performance’ online marketing model prevents marketers from investing scarce resources in VPI-type marketing channels as they can often achieve short-term sales targets without incurring any financial risk by using aggregators and affiliates.

To realise the benefits of VPI, the market needs a new cadre of PIMS providers to emerge who can not only prove the efficiency argument to providers in terms of higher conversion rates and lower cost of acquisition but also do this at scale.

Jamie Smith

Submitted on 03/04/2012

I agree with most of this Alan, though to fully understand the behaviours around Big Data we need to tease out the wider potential uses e.g. strategic planning and decision making.

This post does however remind me of a recent discussion I had on Big Data, where we agreed that “You don’t need to analyse a million people to know what one person wants. You just need to know what one person wants.”  I think that’s something the marketers should understand - and value.

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