Have you seen the new Microsoft site, ‘How-old‘? It allows users to upload a photo, and the site will estimate that person’s age and gender.
Seems like harmless fun, no? (I liked it: it estimated my age as 14 years younger than I am – at my age, that’s a good thing 🙂 )
However some commentators have expressed concerns, despite the page’s disclaimer that ‘We don’t keep the photo’.
Essentially, the author of the above piece was uncomfortable about the vast quantity of data that people were giving the company for free, and how that information might be used.
But this is just one example of the multitude of ways that organisations harvest information about people. Do you have a loyalty card for a store? Have you ever noticed that the emails you receive from the company often include products that you have bought, or that are similar to ones you’ve bought? This is just one example of targeted marketing, the practice of sending offers to consumers based on their purchase history – and it is made possible by big data.
Big data refers to the collection and analysis of large quantities of information, and has been enabled by relatively recent progress in the capabilities of technology. Traditional databases aren’t able to cope with the vast quantity of data that is now created by humankind – these newer tools enable the extraction of insights that were previously impossible.
At first glance, this might seem like a good thing, especially for marketers. Imagine being able to figure out what a consumer wants or needs – maybe even before they do! And just think how much better that would make consumers’ lives – to be sent only marketing materials that they will be interested in, and not be inundated with tidal waves of irrelevant and uninteresting advertising.
Even (perhaps especially) outside the business world, big data has the potential to provide insights into the causes of, and solutions for, some big issues that humankind faces – from traffic congestion in cities, to pollution, to climate change.
BUT, as with much progress, there is a downside.
For consumers (and thus, by default, marketers as well) a major problem is privacy. Check out this article for an example of when marketers get it TOO right – and end up invading someone’s privacy.
Big data in the wrong hands can also emphasise an asymmetry of power. A particularly concerning example is where governments are nondemocratic or corrupt, and information can be used to further the interests of those in power, perhaps by targeting or arresting citizens based on what they ‘might’ be going to do.
But for marketers, there are other problems too.
Some commentators (see this article) say that while big data may help to analyse what is happening rather than why, often that will be good enough. Perhaps it will, in some situations – but in others, the why will be important, and true, useful insight will not be possible without it. In these types of situations, big data in combination with other research methods such as surveys or focus groups are likely to give a more accurate picture.
Like any tool, big data has the potential to be helpful if used wisely.
For marketers, this will require an awareness of both privacy issues for consumers, and also the potential for creating policies or strategies based on incorrect assumptions.
What do you think? Is big data the new big thing, or big trouble?