How Big Data is Like Cable TV

When I want to impress upon my kids how much the world has changed since my youth, one of the facts I like to point out is that I remember a time when most people only had access to four channels on television: the three local network affiliates, plus PBS. When I was about 8-years-old, my household got cable, which expanded our options to channels 2 through 13…although not all of those slots had any content beyond a screen that continuously displayed the current time, temperature and barometric pressure.

Now, in 2014, I can’t even tell you how many channels our household has access to. Hundreds, certainly. There are so many that I have trouble remembering the channel numbers of even the small handful I watch on a semi-regular basis. In short, I have more television than I can handle. My choices over the past 40 years have expanded exponentially, yet I can still only watch one show at a time and there are still only so many hours per day that I can devote to television. As much as I enjoy the variety offered by modern cable and satellite providers, the truth is that most of that variety is wasted due to limits on my time, attention span and competing priorities like my pesky needs to go to work and to sleep.

I started thinking about that cable TV situation today after reading this post about Big Data on George Kuhn’s “Building Your Brand” blog*. If you work in marketing or market research, you have no doubt been reading a lot about “Big Data” over the past couple years. For those unfamiliar with the term, it refers to a recent trend in data analytics that stresses mining very large databases to discover patterns and insights. As an example, if you use a shopper’s card at your local grocery or drug store, you are contributing to that store’s Big Data analytics efforts. Those cards keep a record of your purchases that goes into the store’s database and can be used to create a profile of your buying habits. How detailed of a profile? Consider the famous (or perhaps infamous) example of how Target used Big Data to learn that a teenage girl was pregnant before her father was even aware of it.

Another familiar application of Big Data is the way that Amazon recommends products to you based on what you’ve previously purchased or looked at on their site. Closely related to that are Netflix’s recommendations of movies and TV shows based on the profile created by your previous viewing. In fact, Netflix has reached the point where it’s using profiles to actually develop new shows, like the popular “House of Cards,” designed to appeal to common user preferences.

If all that seems a little creepy and Orwellian to you, you’re not alone. But you can take heart in the fact that, in the marketing realm, Big Data has some fairly significant limitations. Chief among those limitations is that much of the data sits un-analyzed for lack of people to deal with it. I have read any number of stories in the past year or so about an acute lack of analysts with the heavy-duty quantitative backgrounds needed to deal with Big Data at the largest corporations. Some small and mid-sized companies are collecting data and then quite literally doing nothing with it — not only because they lack the manpower, but also because they don’t really know where to even begin.

And that brings me back to the point of Kuhn’s post on “Building Your Brand.” In it, he points out that traditional market research is sometimes more actionable than Big Data analysis, in part because it is more accessible and easy to deal with. With any marketing data, “Big,” small or in-between, the challenge is to turn raw findings into knowledge that helps the marketer make a better decision. A simple survey or a qualitative in-depth interview might not be as precise as an algorithm based on millions of sales transactions, but in many cases they may offer more manageable paths to a useful insight.

Okay, you say, but what does all that have to do with cable TV? Just this: Technology has greatly expanded the amount and variety of TV available to me but, as a practical matter, the quantity of TV that I’m able to consume has not changed. The Big Data movement suffers from the same problem. Organizations now have access to many, many more data points than they can realistically ever use to make decisions or even look at in a meaningful way. In both cases, computers keep getting smarter and faster, but the humans they serve remain woefully limited. So, until our future robot overlords inevitably take over the world, Big Data will remain underutilized.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to check if one of the Terminator movies is on cable tonight…

*Full disclosure: George is my boss at Research & Marketing Strategies, Inc. This entire post may or may not be an exercise in shameless brown-nosing.


One thought on “How Big Data is Like Cable TV

  1. Thanks for the mention Vance. Brown nosing is an accepted form of currency over social media.


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