Editor's Note: Big Data sparks a wide range of reactions from online marketers, ranging from angst to enthusiasm. Count James Green, CEO of Magnetic, a search retargeting firm, among the enthusiasts. (We are too, since Big Data drives our Genome custom audience-buying solution.) A longtime leader in digital advertising, we asked James for his take on how marketers can get past the hype about Big Data and learn how to put it to work for them.
Yahoo Ad Blog: What's the biggest misconception that marketers have about Big Data?
James Green: Marketers tend to see Big Data as a thing, or a subject to be studied. Big Data isn't a thing, it's a trend. Data is constantly being generated about what you've sold, what you've advertised, where people go, and what they're doing. You can track everything down to an individual in ways that you were never able to before---but that doesn't mean that every single thing is worth tracking. A much better way to look at Big Data is to figure out what you care about, and what new data is being generated about what you care about, rather than drowning in the sea of data that's being generated everywhere.
YAB: Is Big Data the marketer's friend or enemy?
JG: I think it's a friend, but only when you look at it for what you want to know. Think of that famous quote about the marketer's dilemma: "I know 50% of my ad spend is wasted, I just don't know which half." Now you can know which half is wasted, because Big Data will tell you.
YAB: Many marketers seem to fear Big Data; what makes you so positive about it?
JG: Data is enlightenment, and we can all use more of it. There is some risk. You can have the "can't see the forest for the trees" problem with Big Data, where you focus on the details and miss the significant trend. But I really believe that the more you know about something, the better you're going to be at dealing with it.
YAB: We've been hearing the saying, "Data is the new creative." How does Big Data impact creative?
JG: I'd argue that creative is one of the first things that Big Data really influenced. We've been doing A/B testing on creatives for years, which is basically running a bunch of ads in a bunch of different environments to find out which creatives work better. What's that but a data-driven approach to determining the best creative?
Big Data really helps you when you have your product or creative and you want to make it marginally better---does blue work better than green, does this copy work better than that. But Big Data doesn't go to that place where great design or great products come from. Greatness comes from somebody who pops up and says, "I've got a brand new idea."
For example, Big Data won't help you come up with something like my favorite ad campaign, "The Most Interesting Man in the World" for Dos Equis, or the creative that goes with it. But you can use Big Data to refine different bits of that great campaign.
YAB: What are some benefits of Big Data that marketers might not be aware of?
JG: You can learn completely unexpected things by analyzing the data. Here's an example that I heard from a competitor. A large agency was running lots of ads all over the place for rental car companies, trying to figure out what worked best. By diving into the data, they found out that their rental car ads worked tremendously well when placed next to the obituaries. It turns out lots of people would read the obituaries and then want to rent a car to go to the funeral. You'd never think of that on your own, but that's what the data revealed.
YAB: How about Magnetic in particular? How do you use Big Data?
JG: We do search retargeting, which means we remember what people are searching for, and target them by serving ads based on what they've searched for. And we simply couldn't exist without Big Data.
We rely on it in two key ways. First, we generate very large lists of keywords that are based on what you might be searching for … like car, cars, auto, automobiles … and we're constantly trying to refine those keywords by adding related words to them … like big car, fast car. We use tremendous amounts of data to come up with those keyword sets.
Second, we run these large ad campaigns with thousands of words in them, and we're constantly optimizing out words that aren't working and replacing them with new words in real time. These approaches work for the vast majority of our clients, but they would be humanly impossible to do without Big Data.
YAB: So it sounds like Big Data can be better data.
JG: I think it is. It's a shame that so many marketers have had this fear of Big Data drummed into them. You can't avoid big data. That's like trying to be a Luddite and avoid all technology. It's just not the way the world is going.