Sales & Marketing

How big data is changing the role of the marketeer

The rising tide of customer information is reshaping the marketing landscape. Breakthrough Business Editor Nicola Smith explains how both companies and individual marketers must learn to adapt

survey carried out on behalf of The Guardian in 2013 by German market research institute GfK revealed that 86% of marketers believe ‘big data’ will change the function of marketing. Another 62% say that big data has already fundamentally changed their role. How should marketers adapt to this changing world?

Big data may be a buzz term, but unlike some in-vogue phrases it’s not all hype. When we browse or shop online, share information on social media or use location-aware mobile devices we are contributing to a rapidly expanding reservoir of data. This information tells companies the products we’ve browsed and bought, what we think about those items or companies, along with anything else we may be likely to buy. Such data can enable businesses to provide customers with more targeted products and services, improving the customer experience and ultimately boosting loyalty and sales. But the arrival of such complex data is shifting the marketer away from a largely creative role and towards an increasingly technical one. As one of the respondents to the Guardian survey commented, “[Big data] creates a radically different foundation for brand strategy and marketing decisions and means the marketing function will have to gain new analytical skills or hire data scientists.”

The bigger picture 

Companies are seeing not only the behaviour of their marketing departments change but also the language, with many marketers now used to discussing ‘hard data points’ and understanding how to write data briefs as well as creative briefs. Long gone are the days when the extent of a marketer’s data knowledge was working with a database of email addresses. Today there are numerous disparate sources of data at their fingertips.

In October 2012 a study by Infogroup Targeting Solutions and Yesmail Interactive showed that marketers’ best sources of customer data were website analytics (49%), data from email interaction (19%) and data from social media interaction (12%), while SMS/phone analytics and display analytics were also cited. But the chief challenge for businesses lies not in capturing the data but in working out which data is useful and how to extract intelligence from it.

One of the biggest risks lies in gathering and storing too much data, a costly process often with no clear idea of how that data will be used. Some companies also risk becoming preoccupied with using big data to provide ever greater relevance and personalisation. These companies don’t generate the incremental return for that investment because the more granular they get the more work is required to create highly detailed queries and algorithms. It is about striking a balance between delivering a relevant experience – whether a customised home page experience or a personalised email, for example, and delivering ROI.

“Companies are seeing not only the behaviour of their marketing departments change but also the language, with many marketers now used to discussing ‘hard data points’ and understanding how to write data briefs as well as creative briefs.”

Looking for answers

Companies need to first work out the questions they are trying to answer – for example, are they looking to cross-sell or up-sell or perhaps boost loyalty? They then need to ascertain which data drives which outcome, before identifying what needs to be captured and from where. The answers require the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) and the Chief Information Officer (CIO) to get together and understand what data already exists and how accessible it is. They must also identify what data is missing and how it can be collected, before identifying how to analyse that data to meet specific objectives.

The fine art of understanding and using big data requires marketers to develop a constantly evolving skillset. While businesses need to have commercially oriented and consumer-oriented people in marketing roles, marketers today need to understand data, from web behaviour and behavioural analytics to how and why search strategies work, for example. Marketers also need to be able to work closely with analysts or information officers and apply a more commercial perspective to findings, and this can only be achieved with an understanding of how that data has been captured and interrogated.

Greater cooperation

Traditionally, IT and marketing have had little to do with one another, yet in reality the two departments are natural partners. The growing importance of big data is seeing closer collaboration between CIOs and CMOs at a strategic level, with marketing taking greater responsibility for the business results tied to technology investments. Indeed, US technology firm Gartner predicts that by 2017 the CMO will have more influence on the IT budget than the CIO.

Big data provides marketers with a huge opportunity to not only target customers in a way that has never before been possible, but to measure ROI on a more granular level and in a more reliable way than before, informing future activity. But to capitalise on this new capability marketers need to move away from a purely creative remit and understand the less sexy – but critical – nuances of data analytics.

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John Carroll - Helping businesses achieve International success. Head of Product Management & International Business, Santander UK