Marketers: Big data is making you lazy (VB Live)

big data.shutterstock 350592197 780x475 Marketers: Big data is making you lazy (VB Live)

Mozilla CMO Jascha Kaykas-Wolff will be joining our upcoming VB Live event, “Lean data for marketers: How your org can stand out among lazy competitors.” Join the roundtable to 

Register here for free.


Today’s marketing has a dirty secret: it’s gotten lazy. During the past decade the number of marketing technology tools has exploded to well over 3,000. Overwhelmingly, those tools have focused on collecting, organizing, and finding insights from data. In response, marketers have defined growth as a mathematical exercise of collecting bigger and bigger datasets. Get all the data you can, goes the conventional wisdom, and software will find the magic bullet buried within the numbers.

True, software can create leverage for your marketing efforts. Data can help inform. But as an industry and as a practice, marketing departments are replacing the sound business fundamentals it once practiced with the procedural tasks of buying and leasing data using tools devoted to collecting as much customer data as possible.

In this rush to accumulate and sell data for its own sake, we’re jumping past using data to validate a strong product market fit, creating solid positioning, and developing customer trust.

After two decades in marketing, my thinking has come full circle. For growth-minded companies, collecting customer data for the sake of collecting data is more risk than the rewards can usually justify. Instead, we should be looking for ways to collect less data and go lean. Why? Because our collection tools create expensive overhead and risks that are impacting the trust of our customers in a negative way.

Consider the fallout from the Ashley Madison security breach in 2015, which affected 33 million users and cost the company an estimated $ 850M in damages — all for a company for which discretion and security is a critical brand value. Or JPMorgan Chase’s cyberattack in 2014, affecting 76 million customers and 7 million small businesses with estimates of total damage around $ 1B, despite the bank spending $ 250M per year on data security.

In the last year alone, the number of companies selling software products that collect, parse, and help marketers take action on data has increased from around 2,000 to nearly 3,700 companies. That’s about 80 percent growth. It should be a fantastic golden age for marketers right now, but it’s not, because there are a few fundamental problems.

  • What if we’re buying these marketing tools, because we think they will help us achieve growth where there isn’t a viable product market fit?
  • What if it’s easier to continue to collect data than to take a risk without absolute certainty?
  • What if we don’t need customer data beyond what’s explicitly been given to us by the customers already?

“The Answer” isn’t in those piles of data, no matter how many marketing tools we use to condense and concatenate it. It usually doesn’t work that way. Hardly ever. Mostly never.  And for most startup and growth-stage companies, the age of Big Data is a confusing mess without the added risks of collecting, storing, and protecting sensitive data.

Maintaining data is a full-time obligation to customers and it requires several levels of expertise. IT and marketing have to balance security concerns with access privileges. Data analysts have to balance actionable recommendations with inconclusive results. And everyone in business needs a refresher on the difference between correlation, causation, and sample bias.

Because of this obsession with data, we’re slipping a notch further into abstractions of our customers. We’re not doing our fundamental marketing research with the customers themselves: understanding our customer population, knowing if and where they exist, knowing what their needs are, and knowing what benefit we actually provide to them.

You might say, “Look, I’m a growth marketer, and these are the tools of the trade. This is the way we have to operate. Just forget about it, and we’ll deal with the data risks if they actually become something real.”

But we aren’t dealing with the risks, and they are becoming something real. We know this from first-hand experience.

Last year, my team at Mozilla had an epiphany when our customers said, “We actually don’t care about using your services for the reasons that you think. It’s not about you being faster, or better, or whatever. We care about something different.”

Our customers said they cared about the purpose that we have as an organization, and by extension they said they cared about being informed and in control about what we do with their information.

We believe our customers told us this for a simple reason. People are becoming aware of how businesses violate their privacy, either purposefully or accidentally. Customers know they’re being bought and sold by data brokers. The millennial mindset that’s emerging and changing the consumer world can be summed up in one word: Trust. People want to buy from companies they trust. And I think we, as marketers, should care about that.

Trust is earned by living up to our product’s promises and taking care of our customers’ data. We should care, because this is where our growth opportunities are going to be. And we’re not going to be able to meet them by merely maintaining status-quo industry data practices.

Instead, I hope I can convince you that trust and growth are not mutually exclusive business tradeoffs, that profits are not stunted by more judicious collection, protection, and use of customer data. To the contrary, lean data practices and profits reinforce one another. More importantly, lean data practices teach us marketers to think carefully about trust.

Don’t worry, I’m not saying data doesn’t help. You can still play with data. You can keep your toys. I have mine, too.

But for the most part, compiling bigger and more complex sets of customer data will not lead to the big profit and marketshare breakthroughs that Big Data promises. Instead, we marketers must learn to live and think lean. The twin false gods of Big Data and MarTech will continue to encourage thousands of marketers to gather all the data they can wielding an ever-expanding arsenal of tools to sift through it all, with little discussion about whether the mad scramble to vacuum up customer info is worth the trouble, expense, and risk.

I challenge the assumption that more data is always better. Rather, I say you can have too much of a good thing. And I call that sort of scrape-first think-later behavior lazy marketing.

Jascha Kaykas-Wolff is Chief Marketing Officer at Mozilla.

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