Why an obsession with Big Data is blinding brands from the truth


“Just because we can reach users on various device doesn’t mean they want us to reach them”, Brett Morris of advertising giant FCB says to the audience at Nedbank’s Digital Edge Live event. “The problem with marketing in South Africa or Africa in general is that brands have become too obsessed with devices rather than understanding the consumer”.

The conversation is about where marketing will or should go in the next five years. The panel includes the heads of some of South Africa’s biggest marketing and digital agencies. “Do marketers and brands really understand their consumers and how they consume content?”, asks renowned technology analyst Arthur Goldstuck, who is also part of the panel.

But is it actually about the device? According to Gloo founder Pete Case, this isn’t always the case.

“We should be humanising technology, not worrying too much about the technology,” he says.

He is not alone. As it turns out, brands have become so obsessed with technology and data that they have forgotten that it is the story you tell that matters.

“The question is not the technology but how we can tell stories through technology,” adds Morris.

We have become so obsessed with technology and the things we can do with it, that advertising has become noise. Brands are talking to consumers in ways they don’t want to be talked to. Brands are constantly collecting information on their users and have convinced themselves that Big Data is the answer to better advertising.

But is it really? Data collection is one thing but gaining insight is the key. Brands aren’t doing that right now. As powerful as all that data is, its power is only useful if we figure out what it means. According to Case, far too few brands or companies have done this.

“We have all this data but we are not talking to consumers in the right way,” Case argues. “Data starts at the beginning. What is the brand story and how does that feed into what the consumer needs and wants?”

If brands are collecting data on me, why is it that I am still getting content that is irrelevant to my context? Take Facebook advertising as an example: around 80% of the time Facebook advertising is irrelevant to the user. The same is true of the ads that appear on Twitter. Facebook sits on banks and banks of data about users and is in the best position to understand what its users behaviour and thought processes are, especially given the large portions of our days we spend on the platform. So why is Facebook still getting it wrong?

“We are not investing enough in the mining of big data,” says Case.

The masses of data available to brands today mean nothing if the they haven’t invested enough resources to understand what that data means and how to personalise it to the user.

“To do mass personalisation, we need to invest in big teams working on good insights,” Case says.

But should brands focus on mining the data that is available rather than focusing on big ideas? According to Joe Public’s Pepe Marais, “big ideas have more weight than big data.”

So what does this mean for the future of marketing in Africa, where data is expensive and all the brands want to talk to consumers via smart devices? In answering this question, the panel seemed quite unfocused and lacked any real direction as to what the future of advertising is for Africa.

Morris reckons that it is about the beautiful alchemy of ideas and data. The key, he says, is gaining useful insights from data and crafting powerful communication through that.

“The story is key” says Case. Ultimately, it’s about finding a way to merge storytelling with big data and what the consumer wants.

Brands need stop getting side tracked by the volume and buzz around big data and figure out its relevance to the consumer. This is the only thing that the panel seemed to agree on.



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