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Alokananda Chakraborty: Big data can change marketing

For that, brands will have to turn swathes of data into credible insight

Alokananda Chakraborty 

Alokananda Chakraborty

At a media seminar I attended recently in Delhi, one of the speakers concluded that customers are no longer just customers: they are unique combinations of data that can be sliced and diced and manipulated. I thought that was a dubious compliment to the shift taking place in the role of marketing within an organisation, thanks to the arrival of big data.

The thing is, data gazing is old hat - marketers have always looked at trends and patterns in consumer behaviours to figure out how to improve their products, cut costs and keep customers from running away to the competitor. Now they have more data to do a better job of it. They have a real-time window through which they can view the consumer - all the factors that influence and explain her decisions - that can equip them to push an individual prospect further along the sales cycle.

This new data is different from the old data sets available to marketers in its sheer volume and the variety of sources. When we shop at a store and use a credit card, when we browse a website and post a comment, when we share information through social media sites or use location-aware mobile devices inside a store or in a mall, we are contributing to this rapidly expanding bank of data. This information will tell companies what we have checked out or bought, what we think about those products and their makers, and whether we are likely to come back and buy more. When processed smartly, this knowledge will help companies offer us more targeted products, services or communication, lift the overall experience, leading ultimately to better loyalty and sales. That's the theory.

So you will see most of our big retailers get very excited talking about the arrival of big data - if nothing, they say, it helps in recreating the experience that we used to have at, say, our local grocery store. When we walked into that shop, the grocer probably knew our names and exactly what we wanted to buy because we built a "personal" relationship over time. As retailers gained scale, that sort of personalised interaction flew out the window. It is apparent that traditional data warehousing and business-intelligence solutions were not always enough to know the customer any better.

So while big data may seem like a buzz term to many sitting on the other side, unlike some other buzz terms, the avalanche of data is actually changing a few rules of marketing. First, it has brought the customer back into focus, whether in terms of what they think of your products or how they react to your marketing. Second, it seems to have queered the pitch for big marketers. That's because one really doesn't need loads of cash and an army of data scientists to make sense of the massive swathes of data. The spread of marketing automation systems and database applications has taken all the customer data out of the technology departments and into marketing cubicles. One can also say the arrival of such complex data sets has changed the role of the marketer from being largely creative to being slightly more technical, and that at a macro level, small businesses and their larger counterparts can finally compete on a level playing field.

The signs of change are all there. If you haven't noticed already, marketers are being able to target and personalise better. When you open an e-commerce site, chances are you will end up on a custom homepage. When you open an email offer, chances are it has been designed exclusively for you based on your past purchase behaviour. In every discussion on new-age marketing, one name crops up with unfailing regularity: Amazon. From what I read, the online retailer collects data from surfers' wish lists, browsing and purchasing histories and so on; then it deploys analytics to reach out to customers by their names and offer them individualised product suggestions. No wonder, the once-upon-a-time bookseller is now the biggest online store on the planet.

And when they are not talking to you, they are probably testing out products and related messages virtually to bring down failure costs, so that they are better equipped to assess future customer behaviours and fashion their products and messages accordingly. There are firms that are already testing new capabilities that include the ability to identify a caller's voice, sift through her purchase history and social media interactions, assess her country of origin or demographics and route her query to the best call-centre agent available. In a few seconds, the call centre hand receives a custom script listing out the recommendations for the caller.

These are capabilities to which marketers have always aspired - the Holy Grail of marketing, so to speak. So, if you are not working on them already, forget surviving the next shake-out.

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First Published: Mon, October 06 2014. 21:48 IST