The elephants to watch out for in 2016


I get the most interesting insights from questions my kids ask me about my work. Why? Because they know very little about big data or analytics, and the questions they ask are sometimes about things that I’ve taken for granted. Every time that happens, it reminds me that the questions you ask are just as important as the answers you get, and that different perspectives are often needed to see the whole picture of a situation.


Photo: Barry Butler, Chicago, IL, taken in Botswana.

That last point is colorfully laid out in the old Indian story of the Blind Men and an Elephant, which is described in Wikipedia as:

A group of blind men (or men in the dark) each touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one feels a different part, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then compare notes and learn that they are in complete disagreement.

The issue, of course, is that none of them have all the information to describe the entire beast.

The elephant story and my kids’ questions also remind me of a lesson I learned years ago using SAS in a college econometrics class – don’t ignore the outliers in your model for two good reasons:

  1. Outliers highlight potential flaws in your model – or aspects of your data that your model does not do a good job of explaining.
  2. Outliers may be the leading indicators of a new trend that will completely upend your original model.

So the opportunity before us this coming year relates to elephants – how we’ll recognize them and what we’ll do with them once we see them. And one thing is for sure – we all have elephants. The key is to find them and to recognize the opportunities they represent.

From the old story, we can appreciate how in order to recognize the elephants, we need all the data so analytics can describe the relationships to gain meaning and compel action. For individuals, this process is (and should be) fairly simple because rarely are we so complex that we need advanced analytics to manage our personal matters. For organizations, getting all the data is more complex the more products and customers you have. But that complexity comes at a time when big data technologies make it easier and faster to find the insights and turn them into business decisions due to:

Many organizations have embraced big data and time and time again have found that it provides key answers but it also prompts questions that previously weren’t known to be asked. And because of that cheaper computing and distributed processing, we now can forgo sampling and extrapolating to analyze entire populations of data, and do it more quickly and efficiently than ever before. Restated in terms of the elephant story - not only can we recognize the elephant, we can do it more quickly. And we can find out if the elephant is alone or in a pack, whether or not the elephant is healthy or ailing, and so on.

Big data also should prompt us to question assumptions, especially in marketing. The reason is that our customers' behavior and expectations have changed so radically, we need to ask if our marketing has changed in kind. Has it? How has your marketing changed in the last 5-10 years? Have you changed how you’re organized and how you do your planning? Has your approach to engaging your audiences changed? If the answer is no to any of those questions - simply ask yourself why and then think about whether or not the answer you get is good enough.


Photo: Barry Butler, Chicago, IL, taken in Botswana.

One thing is for sure – our customers have changed. They also have access to more data, and easier access to computing power. And mobile devices are a key part of that empowerment, but the more important change is how mobile is changing customers' behavior and expectations, as we found in research with Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and summarized in a report titled, Understanding the Mobile Consumer.

Along with mobile devices, social media are creating expectations of immediacy and relevance that are redefining what constitutes a satisfactory customer experience. The relationships between customers and brands are changing, but opportunities await all organizations that modernize their marketing to keep pace with their customers by using big data.

To me, that’s the kind of elephant to watch out for in 2016. And however you choose to ring in the new year, enjoy the moment and mark it with the optimism that great things are on the horizon thanks to big data.

And as always - thank you for following!


About Author

John Balla

Principal Marketing Strategist

Hi, I'm John Balla - I co-founded the SAS Customer Intelligence blog and served as Editor for five years. I held a number of marketing roles at SAS as Content Strategist, Industry Field Marketing and as Go-to-Marketing Lead for our Customer Intelligence Solutions. I like to find and share content and experiences that open doors, answer questions, and sometimes challenge assumptions so better questions can be asked. Outside of work I am an avid downhill snow skier, hiker and beach enthusiast. I stay busy with my family, volunteering for civic causes, keeping my garden green, striving for green living, expressing myself with puns, and making my own café con leche every morning. I’ve lived and worked on 3 contents and can communicate fluently in Spanish, Portuguese, Hungarian and get by with passable English. Prior to SAS, my experience in marketing ranges from Fortune 100 companies to co-founding two start ups. I studied economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and got an MBA from Georgetown. Follow me on Twitter. Connect with me on LinkedIn.

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