Say Hello to Big Brother!

There is a new hit show in town, which is all the rage. Hurry and catch it, or you will miss the bus and get left behind. Inspired by George Orwell’s 1984, the show is called ‘Say Hello to Big Brother.’

Over the past few months, I have attended quite a few conventions, seminars and CMO/CXO round tables in Delhi and Mumbai where data analytics and trending topics such as Customer Engagement, Lead Nurturing and ROI on Social Media have been discussed ad nauseum.

The feeling one gets at these forums is data analytics and digital media is the next BIG thing. Invest or your competitor will get ahead and eat your market share for breakfast!

Now, I do agree that the world has gone digital. Ergo, organisations and marketers have to gear up for it. The issue I see, however, is that the pretty picture being painted of predictive analytics and intelligent, responsive marketing strategies has no frame. That being the case, where will it hang in the Business or Marketers’ Hall of Fame?


Framing Big Data
Framing Big Data


A Pretty Picture

Big Data companies are painting a pretty seductive picture. Who would have imagined even five years ago that the winning team of the FIFA World Cup would share credit with SAP, a Big Data firm, for their win? Who cannot but help admire, even envy, companies like Amazon, which use Big Data to offer delightful service to its book loving customers by serving up titles on menus customised to an individual’s reading tastes? Closer to home, what about ICICI Bank’s new uber, user-friendly website?

According to IBM, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data is created every day, and 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone.  There is a veritable explosion of data. So much so, that I suspect organizations, marketers and customers are all equally overwhelmed. Big Data promises to make sense of all that data, be it social media posts, stock movements from virtual or otherwise shop shelves, digital pictures and videos, customer emails and what have you.  Armed with insights from constantly streaming data on customer sentiment and behaviour, organizations and marketers will, hey presto, be enabled to spot new opportunities, formulate strategies and take informed, timely decisions. 

Sounds like the Holy Grail for business. But is it really as simple as that?

Framing it Right! 

In any play, the stage has to be set to lend maximum impact to any given scene. Similarly, in an art gallery, the frames for the work on display have to be chosen carefully to complement the art. As also the spotlighting. Imagine, for instance, what the Mona Lisa would look like in a thick, multicoloured plastic frame? With psychedelic spotlighting? In such a scenario, any audience would be forgiven for wondering what the fuss was all about!

This is where I have a problem with Big Data. In my eyes, the following questions need answering before an organization takes a decision to invest in Big Data tools or risk forever having its head in the clouds:

    1. Which are the business, marketing, sales or distribution objectives that will be achieved faster and more cost effectively through Big Data support?
    2. What will the time frame be before an organization sees any ROI from such technology platforms?  And, remember these platforms are sold on a perpetual license basis. Consider this. After as early a start as the mid 1990s, Amazon is still to see any great profit. According to The Economist, Amazon made a net profit of just $274 million last year, a minuscule sum in relation to revenues of $74.5 billion. Of course, Amazon’s performance has more to do with its rapid expansion rather than investments in Big Data but it’s still a point to ponder. And a lot depends on the time frame an organization is willing to allow to see a Return on Investment.
    3. Does the organization have the skill sets to put Big Data output to good use? Or will it have to gear up for a new world through transforming itself into a technology centric, data literate and analytic organization across the board? Consider the human capital acquisition and training cost here!
    4. What about organization design? Currently, too many organizations are still working in silos structured on lines of subject rather than object. So, you have the Information Technology and Marketing functions. Within Marketing, most companies separate the Social Media team from the Lead Generation and Branding team and so on and so forth. This ensures focus. But with Big Data, the organization will either have to relook at its design or engineer a culture of collaboration and convergence when called for. No easy task that! On a separate note, doesn’t every action an organization takes impact branding? Then why is branding still discussed in the framework of just branding campaigns.
    5. With Big Data, what role will the Marketing function assign to digital agencies tasked with creative? Big Data is supposed to enable companies to respond on the fly. Will digital agencies respond to such a demanding world or will organizations need to acquire such currently outsourced skills and set them up in-house? Or will an answer be to ask digital agencies to offer implants just like travel agencies now do!

Over and above all these questions, the Biggie, to my mind, is where is the consumer in all this? This is a question, which is not touched on at all in the discussion forums I have attended. Will the consumer accept brands shadowing their every movement? Or will consumer privacy become the proverbial stumbling block, like it did for the telemarketing industry? If that happens, will Big Data become the story of David and Goliath? Only in this case, David’s win will merely prove once again that the Customer is the King and Queen and everything in-between!

Today, organizations may want to say hello to Big Brother. But before shaking hands on any deal, it’s important that they think through such macro level questions. Or, perhaps Big Data firms should think of serving as quasi-consultants to help companies light up that pretty picture by placing it in the right frame. And transform themselves into data literate, customer responsive firms.


Note: The views in this blog are in my personal capacity and do not necessarily represent those of the organization I work for.

Featured image credit – Photographer – Joey O’Rourke,  July 7, 2005

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