Why big data and small data both matter to marketers


I don’t want to have a relationship with a marketing department. I don’t want to be your friend. I don’t want to engage in conversation with you. I feel no loyalty towards you. When I say I like you I’m not entirely sincere.

And yet I chose to share an enormous amount of my life with you. The detail I’m able and happy to share has grown big. Really, really big. But understand this: my reason for sharing this data is entirely motivated by self-interest. You see, I know as much about you as you do about me. I know how valuable my data can be to you. So I expect you to use this data for my benefit. Because you can be damn sure I will be.

This is the challenge we face. This is the opportunity for us to seize.

Big data is the topic of the moment in the world of marketing. As a concept, it has been very difficult to get to grips with. The term big data is nebulous. Most definitions of big data are so broad they provide no real insight into the subject. Yet there is an often overlooked truth about big data: big data is made up of lots of small data.

Specific and concrete

Our lives are full of small data. We generate it constantly as we go about our lives. In the websites we visit, location tracking on our smartphones, the time-stamp on our receipts, our Facebook updates. The jigsaw pieces of our lives that allow a marketer to better understand the individual’s personal context into which we plan to act. Small data is specific and concrete. We can understand it; where it comes from, what it says, how we can make good use of it.  I can think of no better way to illustrate the value of this specificity than with a specific and concrete example.

Importance of small data

Recently, while browsing an online article on the 10 best gaming gadgets, I found myself confronted with banner adverts for dieting, depilation and Disney. A baffling mixture of seemingly randomly selected products with no conceivable relationship to the subject matter of the page. But there is small data associated with this page that is of enormous potential value. For, as with any well-designed website, the page was loaded with key data. That metadata serves a useful purpose. It is there to help us (and Google) find the page. Eight simple phrases: wireless technology, Google Android, gaming, Apple Inc, information technology, computers, Apple Mac, and computer accessories. Eight phrases that tell you everything about the content of the page. Eight phrases that bear no relationship to dieting, depilation and Disney. Eight small, specific, concrete pieces of data that when visiting that page tell you my current interests. Not in the recent past, but right now. Eight pieces of data that marketers should use to determine if an offer for depilation is likely to be relevant to the reader.

Unlike insight derived from a person’s demographic profile or prior purchases (which tends to be relatively stable) situational context is by its very nature short-lived. So when situational context and a customer’s known preferences coincide with a product or service we wish to provide, the confluence of circumstances demands that we should act. Such opportunities may not long persist. Mid-morning coffee becomes lunchtime sandwiches; the laptop is turned off and the TV is turned on. People move on with their lives and the situation changes around them with surprising rapidity. To recognise and seize this moment when our relevance to the customer is at its highest is the key to success.

Changing the way we think

Access to these streams of small data about an individual’s ever-changing situation allows us to change the way we market. To be truly effective we may also need to change the way we think. Marketing in this environment is no longer about delivering a mass message according to the schedule we determine. It is not based on what we knew, rather it is based on what we know and it is entirely determined by the customer. Not explicitly, however. We should not sit back and wait for a call that may never come. Like a
good butler we should be invisible, observing and waiting in anticipation of the moment when we can step forward to serve, even before the recipient realises their need. Discrete, appropriate and timely. Not intrusive, overeager or too frequent. Not pretending our relationship is more than a potentially valuable adjunct to the customer’s life.

To make effective use of this small data we must understand our customers. The journey they take in deciding to make use of a product or service. Rarely simple and linear, hidden within the weave of such decisions are patterns and connections. A time, a location, a website visited, a call made, small pieces of data that in isolation may be missed, but combined act as a signal of potential intent. The challenge at the heart of big data is not then one of technology and calculation, but rather one of imagination. We need to swap our
focus from the sea of data and instead focus on the quantum of our customers’ lives and where we fit within them.

I don’t want to have a relationship with a marketing department. But I will continue to share my own personal small data with you, so that you understand when input may be useful, and equally when it is not relevant in the hope that you can serve me better.

I am happy to share this article on this blog. I originally submitted it to Marketing Week UK, which published it on May 29, 2013


About Author

Dr. Charles Randall

Head of Solutions Marketing, SAS UK & Ireland

Dr Charles Randall is Head of Solutions Marketing at SAS UK & Ireland where he combines the twin roles of active analytical marketing practitioner, with being a writer and spokesperson for SAS on the application of advanced analytics to business problems. As part of this role he collaborates with leading business schools and market research agencies to carry out original research into the issues facing the modern marketing professional. Prior to working for SAS, Dr Randall's career has included spells in Marketing, Strategy, Finance, and Management Consultancy within both B2B and B2C organisations. He was awarded his PhD in Econometrics by University College Swansea in 1994.


  1. You make excellent points. Behind the data are actual customers- people that you want to engage with. It's easy to get lost in a sea of data, but that's usually when it starts to become meaningless. Focus on the small actions rather than the big data.

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