Thinking big data for marketing? Get small data right first

The hype is about big data, but there is a lot of work to be done analysing and actioning small data insights

Managing big data
Managing big data

Ah, big data. It’s hyped as the panacea for everything from identifying new market opportunities to personalising one-to-one conversations with your customers and supercharging your social media program.

While the promise of big data is alluring, the fact is, most companies struggle to turn it into reality. As McKinsey recently noted: “The exabytes of data compiled on the Internet have not yet enabled companies to generate the super-targeted communications to consumers they seek.”

The problem? Most companies do not use their small data well across many functions, including marketing. Consequently, they’re not prepared to scale their analytical efforts to include big data.

If you want to go big with your data, you have to start small. How do you know whether you’re making the most of your small data? Or if you already know you’re not making the most of it, how do you know where the opportunities are for improvement? Let’s start answering these questions by walking through the three pillars of small data success.

3 pillars of small data success

In my experience in working with diverse clients ranging from Fortune 50 companies to government agencies and nonprofits, I’ve found three pillars are key to getting small data right:

1. Collecting and analysing: What is my situation?

The first pillar is collecting data. And you don’t want just any data, you want data that clearly answers the question: “What is my situation?” Of course, data that helps you understand your customers is a no-brainer. A more surprising source of useful data is your content. If you’re like any leading CMO today, you’re investing a third of your budget or more in content marketing (

2. Interpreting: So what does this mean?

The second pillar is interpreting what the data you collected means. An essential element of interpreting is to report your data in a clear and compelling way. If I had a bitcoin for every time I heard a senior marketing manager or executive complain about the analytics reports they receive, I could buy out the Winklevoss twins.

And the complaints are justified. When an analyst throws a 100-page report over to your team, along with a lengthy email describing every possible caveat in painful analytics jargon, you have a problem. The opposite problem - having little to no reporting of data or a cryptic dashboard - is just as worrisome. Too much or too little information will prevent you from turning your small data into intelligence.

3. Acting: Now what do we do?

The third pillar is about turning your intelligence into action. Another way to think about this pillar is answering the question: “Now what?” If your small data doesn’t eventually lead to an informed act of human judgment, you might as well not have any data at all.

Let’s look at a simple example of these pillars working together toward action. I advised the niche online and catalogue retailer, FootSmart, on planning a content marketing product, the FootSmart Health Resource Center (FHRC). We collected and interpreted data about whether FHRC reached more of the right customers. Chock-full of articles, diagrams, quizzes and other useful content about foot health conditions, FHRC content ranked near or ahead of content by major health websites, such as Mayo Clinic and WebMD, in search engine visibility.

That search engine visibility led to a significant increase in Web traffic from people who care about such foot health conditions, and who likely care about treatments for those conditions. So FootSmart acted, deciding to add more content to FHRC and improve the merchandising of products on FHRC. That action led to a 36 per cent average increase in weekly sales.

Those are the basic pillars of using small data well. But how do you know whether they’re working together successfully or where they could improve?

A checklist for small data success

I created this checklist based on both my experience in seeing what works and in interviewing a wide range of marketing and business intelligence professionals for my latest book, Does Your Content Work?

Is your approach to collecting and analysing small data...

  • Focused on content + customers? Are you collecting data just because you can or because it sheds light on your customers and your impact on them? Are you making the most of data related to your content?

  • Aligned with your goals or purpose? Similarly, are you collecting data that helps you understand whether you’re reaching your specific goal(s), as with how FootSmart collected data about its visibility in search engines?

  • Systematic? Do you collect data haphazardly—such as when you have a big campaign, redesign or other change happening—or do you collect data regularly? Do you collect data across departmental or channel silos?

  • Reliable + accurate? Are you confident that the data and your analysis methods are trustworthy, or are there anomalies, inconsistencies or redundancies that weaken your confidence?

As an example of focus, Kraft credits its remarkable marketing success to bringing its CRM, content and data disciplines together under Julie Fleischer.

Is your approach to interpreting small data...

  • Telling a story? Are you clearly conveying what the data means now and in relationship to past data or insights? Are you framing the data so that it’s easy to understand quickly? Are you telling a story of progress, of solving a problem, of discovering an opportunity, or something else?

  • Contextual? Related to telling a story, does your data confirm or disprove your hypotheses? Are you connecting your data to past or related research?

  • Repeatable? Are you automating the assembly and distribution of basic reporting, or is your team having to do a lot of grunt work?

  • Mashable? Does your data have hooks to connect data from each stage of the marketing funnel or customer journey (and consequently, data from multiple departments or channels)?

I talked with chief marketing officer of Dun & Bradstreet, Rishi Dave, about the value of interpreting small data. He noted: “With the analytics available today, we can get a myopic view of our content’s performance in each stage of the marketing funnel. That’s great. But we also need a big picture view….we focus increasingly on the entire customer journey.”

Is your approach to acting on small data...

  • Agile? Can you take advantage of unexpected opportunities or address surprising problems quickly?

  • Tactical and strategic? Are you prepared to let your small data inform not just tactics, such as where to place a button on a landing page, but also strategic decisions, such as what topics you will talk about with your customers to match their newly discovered interests?

  • Monetisable? Are you treating your small data - especially first-party data about your customers - and its insights as assets that can help with new product or service development?

  • Tied to ROI? How do your efforts create efficiency, increase sales or have some other bottom-line impact? Kraft, for example, knows that its content marketing has four-times better return on investment than targeted advertising (Ad Age).

Before you rush into big data, get your small data ducks in a row. You’ll gain valuable insight into your current situation and identify useful questions to ask about big data.

I recently talked with senior director of business intelligence at Cox Media, Alan Segal, about the importance of asking the right questions. He put it like this: “The technology behind big data is arguably the easy part…Going through the data mining process and asking the right questions is the hardest part. With seemingly unlimited data and finite time, narrowing the scope to yield meaningful answers is critical.”

When you know the right questions to ask of big data by improving your small data, you will maximise your investment in all of your data.

This article originally appeared in CMO Council’s Marketing Magnified newsletter, April 2015.

About the author

As CEO of Content Science and co-founder of ContentWRX, Colleen Jones regularly advises executives and practitioners on improving their strategy and processes for digital content, marketing and user experience.

She shares her expertise in her top-selling books, Clout: The Art and Science of Influential Web Content and Does Your Content Work? She frequently speaks for conferences around the globe and is also a guest lecturer for institutions such as the University of Georgia and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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