Big Data’s Big Image Problem

It's been a buzzy concept in marketing circles. That's actually making some of its biggest advocates nervous

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The information technology sector may have coined the term “Big Data,” but advertisers have embraced it as their own. The moniker has become a popular, catchy way of summing up the complex world of analytics used to measure consumer preferences and behaviors.

But with consumers already uncomfortable about their data being collected for marketing purposes, promoting a term that sounds a lot like other industry-based labels with negative connotations—such as Big Brother, Big Tobacco, Big Pharma and, in an election year, of course, Big Government—has some marketers scratching their heads. “‘Big’ can be dumb and creepy and bloated,” said DataXu CEO Mike Baker while attending the Big Data-themed I-Com Global Summit in Rome in early October.

Several I-Com attendees echoed that sentiment, particularly in light of the recent move by Canada and 19 nations from the European Union and Asia that called on Google to revise its data privacy policy. “There is a daunting aspect of data anyway,” said Janice Chan, digital marketing director Asia Pacific for Starwood Hotels & Resorts. “So putting a negative-ish term to it adds to it a little. Like, ‘Everybody, pay attention!’”

Brad Smallwood, Facebook’s insights lead, noted, “Big is not always better. I’ve never really actually liked the term because it doesn’t tell you what to do. Big Data is just a bunch of data.”

Richard Webb, CEO of marketing tech firm Effective Measurement, added, “We don’t talk about Big Data, and we don’t want to be part of anyone compartmentalizing this industry.”

An informal poll of I-Com attendees and marketers on Twitter failed to deliver a home-run replacement, coming up with MegaData (too similar), Cloudbytes (probably not catchy enough) and Realtime Decisions (painfully wonky).

So are marketers married to Big Data, for better or for worse? 4As evp Mike Donahue thinks so. “To change from Big Data to something else at this point? I wouldn’t do that,” he said. “Yes, you run the risk of it being linked up with [negative industry terms], but it characterizes the data that’s available, and that’s important.”

As for privacy hawks, Big Data could actually become part of their rallying cry against online marketing tactics like behavioral advertising and retargeting. “The [label] advertisers helped create could cause real problems with politicians and consumers,” noted Jeffrey Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy. “With Big Data, you have Big Brother and Big Sister on Madison Avenue with their eyes constantly on your information.”

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.