Big Data

Big-Data Faithful and Big-Data Skeptics, Part 2

Jim1Last week I laid out the schism between proponents of big data’s power and those who are skeptical of its magic.

I concluded by saying this week I was going to lay out what some of the true power of big data in online is. The real impact on advertising that big data – from digital display to the social stream – can actually have.

All this data collection and analysis is going to make a difference to advertising; it’s just not going to be online advertising it makes the difference to.  It’s TV. TV still does and will continue to matter.  Because it is where the money is.  Lots and lots of money.

All our hair-pulling about how data and accountability is what everyone should be focused on, yet all these companies are still spending money on TV… well, it’s because the degree of accountability desired by marketers is not the level of accountability the numerati insist they should be offered.  After 15+ years of using online data and the medium’s accountability as an argument for more spending, Print has taken the biggest hit, and that has more to do with patterns of consumption, not the power of the medium as an advertising platform.  The belief that social and search are going to reap the rewards of the translation of analog dollars into digital dimes is evidence that those who hold this belief also believe that online advertising at large will not.

The reason why Search will continue to benefit is obvious: it sits at the very tip of the funnel, ready to sip up all the people dripping out the end who have expressed interest in whatever particular product or service you want to promote. Social, because it allows a brand to best represent itself in an audience’s “flow experience.”  But the social stream, and Facebook in particular, hold promise for marketers that have little to do with them being digital vehicles good for advertising.

Facebook has massive amounts of data.  Yes, they have access to vast audiences. But it’s the latter, not the former, that’s really going to determine their long-term success.

It’s Facebook’s potential for truly scalable REACH that will be meaningful.  Sure, the data will make the quants drool, and plenty of resources will be expended against trying to make all that data actually improve the bottom line of advertisers.  But it’s the vast, segmentable audience that is the real story here.  And I’m just referring to the general VERIFIABLE demographic segmentations that will be possible (gender, age, geography, education).  Forget the more specific segmentation possibilities, though that too has value.  Just being able to verify that it is, indeed, women 25-54 with kids I’m really targeting will be a huge boon.  To date, the best the numerati has given us is the option of replacing the proxy of demographic for the surrogate of assumptions made based on content consumption patterns.  Facebook has a universe filled with willing hand-raisers who have provided a lot of very accurate information about who they are.  This is ridiculously valuable for targeting purposes, without even having to rely on the kind of personal data that will let an advertiser know if that woman 25-54 with kids also has a husband who is cheating on her.

But the REAL value is NOT their ability to target an online audience.  While Facebook will continue to improve the kind of online display advertising experience they offer, as far as online advertising is concerned, Facebook is never going to be able to offer anything that significantly changes the game beyond what we are already doing in dribs and drabs.  Facebook’s advertising offering allows the advertiser to reach a bit further up the funnel than Google does, but Facebook’s advertising is never going to take us deep into the consumer’s limbic system and get them to do things based on FEELINGS.  That is, after all, where the big brand money is.  And that means TV.  Facebook’s biggest value will be the intersection of their audiences and television audiences.  They have the size to cross the chasm between online and offline media.  It is going to be what they bring to OFFLINE media, and what that will mean as it pertains to how online media works in concert with offline media that will ultimately contribute to their long-term success.  The project with Nielsen verifying online audiences is just an experiment: first work with a major media metering outfit on the digital channel, where they both operate, then see how it can expand to offline media channels. I wouldn’t be surprised if part of what Facebook is doing is learning how the methodology works to see if they could offer an alternative, or at least a supplement, to TV ratings. Let’s face it, there’s far more data on Facebook about what people are watching — and how they feel about what they are watching — than anything Nielsen has gathered in 60 years.

All these resources dumped against trying to improve online has only gotten us closer to admitting that online might not actually be broken; it might be that it just isn’t meant to do what we keep trying to force it to do. And more data, while it has made the channel more efficient, it hasn’t made it “do better.”  And it hasn’t made a dent in TV.  What it has done is served as the R&D testing ground for what advertisers are going to get from TV and how they are going to work with it in the future.

Jim Meskauskas is a co-founder and Chief Strategic Officer of Media Darwin, a consultancy specializing in strategic planning of commercial communicative action. He’s a medialogist who has spent the last 20 years living, breathing and thinking about how to use media to move people to action. Outside of that, his likes are horror movies, Southeast Asian cuisine, his wife and his cat — not necessarily in that order. His dislikes are mean people, people who text while walking in or out of the subway entrances, pestilence, war, famine and death.