Is Your Email Marketing Ready for Big Data?

Brent Sleeper
Feb. 17, 2016 by Brent Sleeper

big data elephant

“Big Data.” It’s a thing. In fact, it’s become such a thing that the term boasts the capitalization of a proper noun. It’s also been invoked by pundits and marketers so often that it’s become one of those buzzwords that come to mean everything and nothing at once.

If you’re anything like me, it’s tempting as a marketer to be a little blasé. After all, we know how the sausage is made, right?  We’re database people. We track offers, response rates, and calculate ROI. We get the importance of empirical decision-making. So, what’s new about big data, besides a new label?

For sure, databases aren’t new. They’ve been a key component of the business tech toolbox since the dawn of computing. But technology changes (spoiler: the Internet, virtualization in the cloud, and cheap storage) changed the data game completely. A decade ago, technology analyst Doug Laney was studying the use of data in business decision-making and marketing. He saw that the use of data was exploding, and he coined the term “big data” to describe this shift. Laney suggested that the challenges and opportunities around data encompass three key dimensions:

  • Volume. Data is the lifeblood of modern businesses. It doesn’t matter where the data comes from—business transactions, public information, Internet and social media activity, and all manner of automated systems—the bottom line is that there’s a lot of it. Businesses now hoard almost every scrap of information that crosses their wires. To quote an old spaghetti sauce TV commercial, “it’s in there.”
  • Velocity. Business are not just saving lots of data, but they’re generating and capturing it faster than ever before. Proximity and location data, app and web site clickstreams, point of sale systems, sensors and smart meters all generate torrents of data in near-real time.
  • Variety. Data comes in all flavors. Not just the structured records used in traditional databases, big data also includes freeform text documents and email, logfiles, API transactions and webhooks, social media posts, photos and videos, DNA sequences, and more. In short: big data encompasses anything that can be digitized. Today, that means nearly anything that exists in the world.

In the past, the cost of storing all of this data and the difficulty of accessing it meant that businesses needed to be stingy with what was recorded, but cheap storage and new technologies have eased the burden to nearly nothing. In short, the amount of data that’s being created and stored on a global level is almost inconceivable, and it just keeps growing.

But what do businesses actually do with all of this information? The truth is, sometimes nothing. But some companies have figured out how to sip from the data firehose to gain a strategic advantage in their business operations or in their marketing and customer relationships.

Their experiences tell us that the strategic value of big data isn’t how much of it there is, but rather how it’s used. Here are some of the real-world use cases:

  • Monitoring production or logistics, detecting problems and defects in near-real time, and taking action before a problem grows.
  • Personalizing customer service or generating offers in real time that reflect the “perishable moments” that combine external triggers and an individual customer’s habits or value to the business.
  • Making financial decisions, optimizing supply chain futures, or recalculating risk exposure in real-time.
  • Detecting fraudulent behavior or risky patterns before they become a liability.

My colleague Rob Marchi helped explain the impact of big data in his talk at SparkPost’s recent Insight user conference. Rob did a great job talking about what it takes to make big data a reality from a systems perspective. And it got me thinking about what big data means for email marketers.

Nearly any business can collect data. Making sense of it is a lot harder. Specialized tools help find patterns in data, but it actually takes the human expertise of data scientists and business and marketing strategists to figure out unique, competitive leverage—and it takes systems that can act on data to achieve it.

But until we break outside a static, list-based approach to defining offers, generating messages, and measuring performance, big data might as well be a hypothetical future rather than a contemporary reality. Until we think about generating messages on demand, measuring individual customer engagement as it happens, and changing offers or messages in real time, most of the benefits of big data will be inaccessible to us.

So, food for thought: how does a world of big data change what you could do with your own email marketing? And what are the capabilities your email infrastructure would need to get there? Let me know—I’d love to hear what you think about big data and email marketing.

—Brent
@brentsleeper

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