While You Perfect Big Data, Don't Forget About Small Data

The saying “can’t see the forest for the trees” applies in spades to big data. While data teams everywhere work with developers and big data vendors to ingest, organize and utilize big data, marketers are left wondering when they’ll start reaping the rewards. In fact, in a recent survey by IDG, few marketers were even thinking about getting ROI from their big data investments any time soon. 

Even for the companies that are far enough along with big data marketing projects to gain some insight, big data is hardly a panacea. It’s expensive, it’s not always accurate (garbage in, garbage out), and it tends to focus on macro solutions that aren’t always applicable to daily tasks such as campaign optimization or targeting. Many big data projects are led by IT and are focused on macro business solutions, such as “single view of the customer” across sales channels. For a CMO who needs to show ROI on marketing spend, waiting for big data to come through might not be an option.

Enter small data, which can be just as powerful, much less expensive, and much more manageable, too. It’s a shame that these small insights aren’t sexy right now, because they are what will drive incremental improvements between the big data wins. What marketers must remember is that data is data and insights are insights. You don’t need a super computer to tell you that A/B testing is a good idea.

At the most basic level, small data is the difference between taking advantage of information that is in plain sight, and not doing so. The beauty of small data is that you can start with a simple question and then go get your answer from your own reporting, without a lot of analytics. For example, asking “is there a way to further segment this audience?” or “Is there a more valuable way to measure the results of this campaign?”

It’s important to note that small data is not the rival to big data. In fact, they can fit very nicely together. For example, imagine that you are running a campaign for a women’s clothing store. It doesn’t take a big data genius to determine that it might be worth it to try targeting women and not men with the advertising messages and likely see a 50% lift in performance as a result. While the “female” segment itself might have come from big data analytics, the idea of analyzing something as basic as gender targeting is small data. If you have first party data, it’s actually as simple as selecting a single attribute, no fancy big data science needed.

Marketers can also think of small data as the transferring of mundane insights from one marketing channel into data points for another channel, which can create a lot of lift without a lot of analysis. Retailers can take shopping data and search data and inject it into their advertising cookie. When a consumer hops to another site, and the ad call is made (either programmatically or standard mechanisms) the ad server reads the data in the first party cookie to render personalized content, for example populating the creative with the same image as the one that was searched. 

Layering one more insight on top of an already valuable insight can also help create even more relevance for the customer. Travel advertisers can use not only location to customize ads, but also the last search criteria made by the consumer. For example, if I am in Denver, but run a search from Phoenix to New York City, the next ad I see from an airline will show the specials from Phoenix … not Denver. 

What’s most important is to create a data driven culture in general. With a focus on small data, you can empower everyone on the team to be responsible for data-driven improvements to the business. When setting up a new campaign, think about the data at your fingertips across marketing departments, and see if there are some simple insights from one channel that will make a big impact on another. If you have a weekly or monthly metrics meeting, take that time to dig deeper. For example, if you’re running multiple campaigns and your media buyer gives you a report on click through rate, ask about the fraud and viewability scores, the engagement metrics, or insights that they took away across the various campaigns. Don’t be satisfied with the status quo. Small data is the idea that a better insight is just around the corner, and if you look hard enough, you’ll be sure to find incremental improvements that add up to big returns.

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