When I started this blog I had promised myself to limit the use of unnecessary buzzwords and clichés. One of the terms I find the most overused is “big data”. I love Dan Ariely’s now infamous quote from his Facebook profile about the similarities between big data and teenage sex.

Big data is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it…
– Dan Ariely

It is really spot on for the vast majority in data too!

When it comes to data, I think there are three groups of people. The first group are the scared ones. The scared ones are so afraid of the big unknown (that is big data) that they try to hide like an ostrich hoping that things will sort themselves out without their involvement. In the teenage sex allegory, these are the quiet boys in the corner who are too afraid to speak up and downplay any interest out of fear of the unknown.

The second group is the obsessed ones. These are the people so obsessed about big data as a concept that they are talking about it all the time. They are in love with the idea itself. If they live in the corporate world, they may over-invest in software to be ahead of the curve and if they are entrepreneurial they may build a start-up around some data niche they believe in for the future. In the teenage sex story, this is the slightly awkward guy who compensates for his insecurity by bragging (lying) about their conquests. In reality he is   inexperienced. These guys may be so obsessed that they borderline the bag of sand moment (click here if you have no idea what that is).

The final group is the pragmatic ones. They find a use for data to the needed extend. In other words, they aren’t overly obsessed about the concept of “big data”, but rather focus on the application of data. In the teenage story, the pragmatic ones are the guys who get their first experiences through a relationship where things develop at just the right pace rather than under pressure from the outside world.

In my experience far too many people fall into the first or second group. Rather than accepting that we now live in a world where data is more and more readily available, most people focus on the big data term to an extent that leaves them either get overly eager or slightly anxious.

So, what is the right approach?

When it comes to data you almost cannot be pragmatic enough. It all comes down to the application of the data. In other words, to answer how you should approach it, you need to be crystal clear about what you are looking to get out of it.

I am a big fan of data and I am sure that many of my current and former colleagues would say that I obsess too much about it. The truth is that for the vast majority, only a small amount of data, if any, is needed in excess of what is available out of the box with most analytics platforms (GA gives enough data to confuse many CMOs!), CRM solutions, media buying platforms, and so on.

How much data is enough?

Big data is a catalogue of tools and should be treated as such. Imagine a carpenter with a hammer in his toolbox who starts his day by thinking “well, what can I do with this one today?” rather than looking at the bigger plan and finding out how his work fits into that plan in the smartest possible way. If what you are trying to do gets easier and/or faster by using a hammer, then use it! But if you don’t yet know what you are trying to build or if you can’t envision what it will look like when you’re done, then you’re in the wrong place. First things first.

The lack of data understanding results in people investing way more time in their marketing/onsite/sales data than what can be justified. Could that time have been better spent else where? How about renegotiating vendor deals, looking at other channels or new markets to enter?

Too many people are obsessed with the tool and not first looking at the challenge or opportunity at hand. Without wanting to sound too much like a dad towards the end of the story about the birds and the bees, there is a time for everything and it will come naturally when the time is right.

What should I do then?

It’s surprisingly straight forward: what are the biggest bottlenecks in your organization or team today? Why are they problems? Is there any way data can help you solve them? Don’t spend days on this, but see if you can come up with ideas or speak to people who may be able to help.

If data is the answer, then great! Go ahead. If not, then spend your time elsewhere until you either have the need or the know-how to improve your company with data, more than you could with the same time and resources in other fields.

The amount of data can have two vital effects on the organization. If it is present, its scope and magnitude may seem too overwhelming and scare people away from using it, or in the decision making process of what systems to use, the amount of data and its potential use in the future may clog the decision making.

Let me give you an example of how data overload can kill the application of data. Most of the people I know who work with, say, AdWords, end up optimizing only the most obvious metrics and dimensions. They look for click through rates, conversion rates, match types, budgets and bids. This is a great start, but once you start applying the insights provided in combination with GA, the amount of data available becomes overwhelming to most! A fraction of accounts use mobile adjusted bids and an even smaller subset takes action based on patterns in location or usage over the course of the week (day and time). This is just the first step – it’s readily available out of the box, but hardly used by the average user, who at the same time may be a loud passenger on the data bandwagon.

Another common case I see, at many of the organizations I advise, is when the amount of sophisticated tools available for making, say, CRM more personalized, more automated and more tailored has resulted in an analysis paralysis for the organization! They simply end up being so afraid of making the wrong decision that they make no decision, hoping that the next piece of analysis (which may not even be scheduled) will give them the insight to make the “right” decision. In this case, the only right decision to make is to choose the solution that will give you what you need. It may be helpful to shut out the sales spiel of all the things in the world that can be done with these platforms. Let’s face it, in 90% of the cases these features either won’t be used anyway or may not work as well or easily in practice as it sounded when the contract was signed.

In conclusion, be the pragmatic guy. Don’t rush into things at the wrong time, but take it step by step as you need it and as you feel ready for it.


Photo: iStockPhoto

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