Navigating Big Data for Big Profits

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Big Data, an ever-evolving catchall used to describe the vast amount of unstructured data, has become something of a buzz term in recent years. Published reports have indicated that upwards of 90 percent of the world’s data was created during the past two years alone.

There’s no denying that with technology and Internet usage skyrocketing, there are more opportunities than ever to gather information about customers. Whether it’s coming from social media sites such as Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, or from countless other Web sites, on mobile devices, laptops, or desktops, data is being generated at an astonishing rate.

Today, progressive business leaders don't need to be convinced there is tremendous value in data, says Jeff Tanner, a professor of marketing at Old Dominion University and a consultant at BPT Partners. Making use of Big Data has gone from a desire to a necessity. "The business demands require that you use it," he says. "If you're a salesperson and you're not making the numbers that are required of you, you're not going to get paid as much."

Technology plays a key role in harnessing Big Data. Rosetta Stone, for example, was able to do so using InsideView’s marketing solution; the educational software provider had found it difficult pinpointing a single title or department as its typical buyer. With data culled from social channels and the Web, InsideView helped Rosetta Stone identify the accounts most likely to close, enabling it to more effectively target them earlier in the buying cycle.

This is only one example. The reality is that Big Data can serve organizations in many ways. Ironically, though, with such a wealth of information at a company's disposal, the possibilities border on the limitless—and that can be a problem. Data is not going to automatically bend to a company's will. On the contrary, it has the potential to stir up organizations from within if not used correctly. If a company doesn't set some ground rules and figure out how to choose the appropriate data to work with, as well as how to make it align with the organization's goals, it's unlikely to get anything worthy out of it.


Big Data is nothing if not available, and it takes minimal effort to collect it. But unfortunately, it will not be of use to anyone if it’s not molded to meet the particular demands of those using it. "There are a lot of Big Data myths," notes Michael Wu, chief scientist at Lithium Technologies and Klout. "Some people are under the impression that they’re going to get a lot of information simply from having data. But businesses don’t really need Big Data; information and insight are what people need."

While a vast amount of data matter might be floating around in the physical and digital universes, the information it contains may be considerably less substantial. "Data has a huge amount of statistical redundancy," Wu says. "What happens when you back up your hard drive? You double your data, but you don't necessarily increase your information."

To illustrate the problem, Wu explains that two photographs of the same conference room full of attendees, taken from two angles—one from the stage and one from the back exit—will yield a considerable amount of overlapping information. A person looking at either picture, though, can infer from both that the person in the third-row aisle seat is wearing a red shirt. In other words, information pertaining to the color of the shirt is repeated in both instances. If the goal is to learn the color of the man's shirt, simply having one picture would suffice. Similarly, knowing that Apple's stock is up and that someone has tweeted about the brilliance of the iPhone 6 may reveal bits of identical information.

While it might seem advisable to collect as much information as possible, some of that information just might not be relevant. You may learn there is a toothpaste stain on the man's red shirt, but that might not be helpful to your company. Relevant insights, on the other hand, allow companies to act on information and create beneficial changes.

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