Andrew McAfee, Principal Research Scientist at the M.I.T. Center for Digital Business, kicked off a conference last year by saying that Big Data would be “the next big chapter of our business history.” [1]

It seems as though he was bang on. Big Data is now widely considered to be more than just the latest business buzzword, but carries with it an important caveat…it must be properly understood and effectively used in order to be of any use to businesses.

Big Data provides all business units – ranging from the product development team to the marketers and customer service arms – with a real opportunity to get ahead of the competition by predicting behaviours and better serving their customers, pre-, during-, and post-sale. Ultimately, it can help them achieve the “Holy Grail”: creating and keeping true brand advocates.

It’s easy to assume that all a business needs is the Big Data and a top data analyst to do the number crunching, but it’s not that simple. Hedge funds have used algorithms and data models for years, but this hasn’t stopped them from occasionally making a bad investment.

The key to unlocking the power of Big Data is to understand how all of the disparate data types that we have at our finger tips relate to one another, and how together they can be used to create a rich customer profile. To do this we need an understanding of the customer and context of the source;

  • DO consider the entire customer journey: Big Data should be used to monitor and understand customers throughout the customer journey; awareness, interest, decision making, purchasing, engagement and return visits are all equally important. Only by taking this complete end-to-end view can companies anticipate and respond to customer needs, providing them with a personalised and targeted service.
  • BUT DON’T be a stalker – Inundating customers with overly personalised offers could annoy them and will reflect badly on the company sending the promotions. Businesses may know who customers are and what they like but unless businesses understand the optimum time and method to make contact, it means nothing.

Take political parties and election campaigning for example. The public are profiled based on where in the country we live, because apparently this says a lot about us: our income, our family set up, even how we like to spend our weekends. What often isn’t considered is WHY we live where we do, which may have no bearing on our political views.

Big Data is “the next big chapter of our business history”[2] but we need to remember that there is a very real person behind every number.