Five Dangers in Data


The era of big data is here, and with it comes a smorgasbord of opportunities to connect with customers in amazing new ways. Vast quantities of information are flowing into businesses from social media, smartphones, bots, GPS devices, cameras, appliances, and satellites, and increasingly sophisticated computer algorithms are attempting to turn it all into actionable intelligence.

For marketers and brand managers, the prospect of knowing more about customers’ lives, habits, and desires than ever before is exciting. But amid the excitement, it should not be forgotten that few businesspeople—even C-level executives—truly understand what a revolutionary force big data is, or the disruptive threat it represents for businesses of all kinds. While you prepare to take advantage of all the glorious opportunities big data offers, keep the following tips in mind.

Secure your data. For companies that collect and store vast amounts of customer data, the most obvious threat is a security breach of the sort that has plagued Target, Home Depot, and J.P. Morgan Chase. Hundreds of other companies have experienced similar data breaches in the past few years, because those hacking into corporate databases have been just as persistent as the people trying to keep them out.

Better security doesn’t mean a policy review—it means committing to a long-term investment in the infrastructure and personnel needed to safeguard what’s rapidly becoming every organization’s most important asset: customer data. The more people trust companies with their personal information, the more companies need to be worthy of that trust.

Don’t drown in data. Big data isn’t just about more information; it’s about exponentially larger tsunamis of information coming from all directions at once, at speeds and volumes humanity has never before seen. The possibility of drowning in—or at least wasting a lot of time and energy swimming through—all of that extraneous data is real. The challenge is to extract the data you need from the data you don’t. Too much information is just as useless as not enough information, or not the right kind.

Data itself is getting ever more granular, so the sieve for sifting it needs to get more refined as well. Be as specific as possible about what data would be useful to know. Narrow your focus. Define your parameters. And don’t forget to ask the obvious questions, such as: “If you could communicate with customers at the moment they are deciding between your brand and someone else’s, what would you say to them?”

Don’t get outsmarted. It has never been easier for a few people with an idea to mount a competitive challenge to even the most established business—and in the era of big data, size is not necessarily a strength. Big data will open cracks and fissures in the marketing landscape that others can easily exploit. Anyone who tries can be a competitive threat, if not an existential one.

No matter what size an organization is, systems need to be in place to keep at least part of the organization operating as if it is a small, hungry startup. More energy needs to go into market research, scouting, and competitive intelligence, because when change is swift and constant, a competitive threat can come out of nowhere and do a great deal of damage.

Keep minding the store. In addition to the consumer side of big data, companies in the next few years will deal with ever-larger amounts of internal data. In many organizations, however, information is still siloed in different departments—accounting, manufacturing, marketing, IT, etc.—preventing the sharing of useful information. Companies that figure out how to communicate transparently will have a competitive advantage in the future.

Data management is a challenge for everyone, but a big part of that challenge is finding people with the experience and training necessary to serve a company’s needs, especially as it grows. Education and training of data-management personnel will pay huge dividends down the road, even if it seems like an unnecessary expense now.

Listen to the machine. As organizations evolve and silo walls break down, data analysis will become an increasingly important business process. There will inevitably come a time when big data suggests that a big change needs to be made, however, and one of the hardest things for people to do is to let the machine decide. However scary it may seem, the machine might be right.

Listen to what the data is telling you, and use it as intelligently as possible. Don’t abandon your instincts or intuition, but do use all of the information available to inform your gut decision. Otherwise, your gut might betray you.

Market researcher, strategist, and speaker Owen Shapiro is the author of Brand Shift: The Future of Brands and Marketing. Over more than 30 years in customer insights and market strategy, he has helped launch innovative retail startups such as Staples, PetSmart, and Five Below.