Big Data Scientists: The New Mad Men?

Successful marketing now depends on "who has the better math," not the better creative, says analytics firm.

Jeff Bertolucci, Contributor

August 27, 2012

4 Min Read

Smart and clever ad campaigns may win awards, but the ability to ingest and draw actionable information from massive data sets is key to a winning marketing strategy.

Sure, the latter approach requires a solid background in digital analytics and most likely fewer three-martini lunches, but that's the price a marketer must pay to reach consumers, many of whom are migrating away from traditional, ad-supported media to highly segmented digital channels, including social networks and mobile devices and apps.

At least that's how Webtrends, a 16-year-old Web analytics company, co-headquartered in Portland, Ore., and San Francisco, sees the state of modern advertising. The software and consulting firm works with more than 3,500 clients, including BMW, Microsoft, T-Mobile, and Toyota, to solve a classic big data dilemma: How to use draw insights from huge volumes of data to deliver a marketing message to consumers.

"Big data is a huge opportunity for the marketer, but it's also a huge challenge. It has brought more and more data--but with that, you need to bring insight," said Bruce Kenny, Webtrends' executive VP of technology and host operations, in a phone interview with InformationWeek.

"Big data is interesting but also a bit daunting," added Webtrends' CMO Martin Doettling, who participated in the call. "It's more data than most companies can actually handle."

[ Learn what to do When Big Data Questions Can't Wait For Data Scientists. ]

The solution may require companies to spend large sums of money--not just on big data analytics platforms, but also on data scientists trained to work with algorithms that help companies optimize and personalize online interactions with consumers. Earlier this year, research firm Gartner predicted that by 2017 chief marketing officers (CMOs) would spend more on information technology than chief information officers (CIOs).

Today's consumer segmentation is very granular, often taking into account specific circumstances or behaviors. Life events such as births, weddings, and deaths impact how companies engage with their customers.

"Organizations that focus on marketing are struggling to keep up with the consumer," said Doettling. "Insight into data--and understanding customer behavior--distinguish successful marketers from those who are left behind."

Kenny points to Webtrends clients like Huggies, which uses a rewards program and other enticements to encourage customers to sign into its website. This customer engagement allows the company to deliver content relevant to the visitor. A mom with a two-year-old, for instance, probably wants to see information on diapers for toddlers, not newborns.

The rise of social media and mobile devices has added to the complexity of modern marketing.

In 2007, an online marketer needed a website to have an adequate digital presence. Fast-forward two years, and suddenly it needed to engage consumers via Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, as well as through mobile sites and apps.

"The explosion of data coincided with the explosion of social and mobile data. For the digital marketer, it happened essentially overnight," said Kenny.

One of Webtrend's clients, an e-commerce executive at a large retail catalog, recently told Doettling that marketing is undergoing a fundamental transformation, one driven mostly by insights gleaned from customer data.

"The skill set required today to succeed is so different than in the past," said Doettling. "In the old days, marketing was driven by who had the better creative. Today, the success of marketing depends on who has the better math."

Managing multiple data channels is a challenge, as is the difficulty of responding quickly to changing market trends.

"Marketing campaigns of four or five years ago would be spread over months. Today, you're running a Facebook campaign that's probably over in 10 hours," said Kenny.

He added, "One customer told us, 'We need to move faster ... our customers are savvy, and they'll quickly leave us if we don't respond to their needs.'"

Social media make the customer more powerful than ever. Here's how to listen and react. Also in the new, all-digital The Customer Really Comes First issue of The BrainYard: The right tools can help smooth over the rough edges in your social business architecture. (Free registration required.)

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About the Author(s)

Jeff Bertolucci


Jeff Bertolucci is a technology journalist in Los Angeles who writes mostly for Kiplinger's Personal Finance, The Saturday Evening Post, and InformationWeek.

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