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The Difference Between Big Data and Small Data… and What it Means to Marketers

It seems that everywhere you turn someone is talking or writing about “big data” and its importance to marketing teams across business of all sizes and spaces. But what IS “big data” and how does it differ from “small data”? And why is it so important to marketers today?

Marketers, whether or not they’re aware of it, are constantly working with data – both big and small – so it’s important to understand the difference between the two. In the past, marketers didn’t need to know the difference since, until recently, data was only available to statisticians and IT managers.

“Big data” made its way into the marketer’s world as a result of the evolution of the PC. Before the PC, data consisted of hand-written calculations, meticulous data notebooks, and a great deal of time and patience for analytics. The PC’s automated capabilities gave data a clean, paper-free place to live. Today, even the largest amounts of data can be easily stored and accessed via cloud computing. Because marketers now have the ability to compute large amounts of information then display the output graphically, they can now use an increasing number of channels to market, which then causes an increase in the data collected.

So, again, what is the difference between “big” and “small” data? Data today refers to a set of three main characteristics: condition, location, and population.

Condition refers to the data’s current readiness for use. For example, a list of email addresses confirmed through a Captcha validation system whose members have opted in to receiving online communication from you is likely ready to use (often referred to as “clean”). This type of clean data is “small data” in contrast to a list of purchased email addresses. This type of data (which must be validated as correct, relevant to your organization, and willing to receive messages from you) is not well conditioned and requires time and cost to clean, making it “big data.”

Location refers to where the data originates and its compatibility with a usable format. Considering our list of email addresses, if the data lives in an email distribution client like Marketo or MailChimp, it has a single location and is compatible with the format that it needs to be sent from. These characteristics make it “small data.” On the other hand, data that requires merging from multiple sources in a variety of formats or with differing variables is considered “big data.”

Population refers to those who have qualities in common with the need in consideration – your email list, for example. A “small data” set would include a known population that is not expected to change its composition in the short term, allowing marketers to use this data to answer a specific question or need. For instance, when looking to market a product or service, you’d want to consider a list of users who recently purchased, or showed interest in, a similar item from you. Because they purchased something similar, it’s safe to email them. Conversely, a “big data” set would look like the large purchased email list full of unknowns, possible duplications, and unsubscribes. Good marketers would not use this list in a targeted email marketing campaign.

Now that we understand the difference between the two types of data, let’s address why marketers should be concerned with data size:

  1. Bad Data = Bad Marketing: Plain and simple. As a marketer, you need to be able to know and recognize bad data. Data can be (and usually is) manipulated to say what people need or want it to say which is a powerful tactic if you are the one controlling the data. However, receiving large data sets or outcomes can be intimidating if you trust others to provide you with accurate information to do your job. This doesn’t mean that people always willingly provide incorrect data or outcomes, as the providers may not know that the data is inaccurate.

  2. Maslow’s Hammer: Are you familiar with the saying “if you have a hammer in hand, you eventually start to see a nail”? In layman’s terms, this means that if you’re looking to find something, you naturally increase your odds in finding it. Data always has structures or characteristics that group items together naturally. However, when working with “big data” it’s important to understand that these groupings might be the result of chance so apparent trends should be determined by testing. For example, an email link may appear to have been clicked more frequently in one geographic location than another, resulting in the decision to market products more heavily in that area when, in fact, the grouping of clicked links could have been random.

  3. Aggregation is Power: If you have access to the data your organization gathers, you can discover powerful information about your users or potential customers. You might even unearth a ton of data that needs a better way to be analyzed for your particular needs or realize that you need to capture more data from particular sources to round out your set. Keep in mind that knowledge is power so get your data and get started!

While understanding “big data” is important to marketers, I understand that it comes with a cost. Investing in big data is expensive and analyzing any data has a cost – whether it’s done through expended man-hours or purchased tools. One of the most important things for marketing professionals to understand is “big data’s” ability to allow you to discover new, relevant patterns in your market that may overlooked or go unnoticed when using “small data” samples. Majority of data collected by marketers involves an understanding of evolving behavioral patterns, which quickly outdates “small data,” so investing in “big data” acquisition and management can greatly impact your organization. But keep in mind that no matter how large or small, correct analysis of the data sets is what counts the most

Author Bio: Eileen Bernardo is the PR/Communication Manager for Viralheat, the social media marketing suite for business. She understand the power of words and enjoys taking different works of writing and turning it into information that is beneficial to the masses. You can find her cheering on her favorite sports teams or snowboarding down the slopes in Lake Tahoe. You can reach her at eileen [at] Viralheat [dot] com or on  Twitter at @eileenrene.


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