The Realities of Big Data for B2B: Optimism and declarations of failure

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In part one of this investigation, we reviewed the facts about how Big Data demands upfront expenditure for potentially mixed results. There remain, though, many voices on the side of optimism.

“What you’re going to see over time is that prices are going to go down as competition increases for data markets,” says David Johnson, director of product marketing at Big Data provider Oracle Eloqua. “And then it’ll be much more accessible to mid-market and up companies.”

But not everyone is convinced. In 2013, Joel Harrison, editor-in-chief of London-based B2BMarketing, penned a column declaring Big Data a failure in the B2B channel. Three years later, his assessment hasn’t changed.

“I now know of a few isolated incidents of B2B companies using what you might call Big Data, but they are definitely the exception rather than the rule,” he said when reached by e-mail. “Most of those I have heard of are publishers. At the same time, we had an event last week for the Business Marketing Collective where John Watton of Adobe totally echoed my point that for the vast majority of B2B marketers, their problem is medium-sized data, not Big Data. Big Data is a distraction at best—a ruse to get you to buy something at worst. Predictive analytics seems to have taken over as the current hot topic when it comes to data in B2B.”

He’s not entirely wrong. According to Beath, Big Data’s utility is questionable but not because of any inherent lack of usability. Rather, it’s a cultural problem where organizations either don’t know how to make use of the data they collect or they don’t trust the data they do collect (e.g. because it isn’t collected in any standardized fashion).

Beath says effective use of Big Data “means first of all getting your own data house in order and learning to manage your own small data. It means integrating the silos of data, integrating all your customer data and supplier data, so that you have a single source of truth about the most important things in your business. That’s a giant cultural transformation for most companies—managing their data in order to make decisions on it as opposed to having data to just fulfill some required reporting responsibility.”

That said, there are some use cases where even Big Data purveyors concede Big Data may not be the most efficient use of resources. These might include some businesses dealing with just a handful of customers in a very specific market and on a personal basis. Oracle Eloqua’s Johnson muses that while price accessibility is the only true barrier to using Big Data, it’s conceivable that “If you were dealing in a very niche market where you might do a billion dollars in revenue but that might come through 15 customers, it’s highly relational and it’s all about who you know and your relationships with them.”

That’s an observation backed up by Beath who says, “if you run your organization with great confidence in your ability to make decisions by the seat of your pants, Big Data is not going to do you a lot of good because it’s not going to capture the intuition that you have about how to run your business.”

But pressed to compare two businesses—one making decisions by intuition and another using intuition along with data analysis—she readily admits the latter would tend to have the advantage. What data analysis allows a business to do is to “separate a general trend from a local trend or make a distinction between what the market is actually saying vs. what the 20 customers I’m talking to are saying,” she says.

As with other technological revolutions, Big Data may yet prove a slam dunk. For some, like Illumiti’s Orbach, it will become “mainstream” when the computing power widely allows businesses to support decisions in real-time, a trend already in evidence. For others like Beath it will come down to a “human cultural thing” where increasing numbers of executives feel more comfortable with interpreting the math and statistics and then lead organizational change within their businesses. But for now, says Beath, “I just think making giant investments and big bets that having the right tool is going to change your decision-making culture is the wrong thing to do.”

Photo credit: Jon Evans

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Samson Okalow

Samson Okalow

Samson Okalow is a Toronto-based business writer. He has held editorial positions at a number of publications , including Canadian Business, Strategy and Adweek. He has contributed to numerous other publications including Playback, the Globe and Mail and Report on Business.