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This article was first published in Gulf News, Wed 9th March 2016

Last month I had the delight to be leading the Q&A at a gathering of 40 chief marketing officers and other big title-holders in Dubai. The premise for the gathering was an “uncomfortable breakfast”.

Now, if you’ve had breakfast at the Armani Hotel at the Burj Khalifa, it’s far from uncomfortable. But the topic was data-driven marketing. And that is pretty uncomfortable, especially since some of those present would have openly admitted they “know nothing” about data.

You see, that’s the problem: data is often unfairly awarded the epithet ‘big’.

It’s true that there is a lot of different sets of data in big business today. A company carries lots of data points that are easy to understand and use.

Sales data, web analytics, social media analytics, email databases, competitive research… and each of these sets tells a story. And the business analyses the story from a single data set, derives some insights and has a good idea how to do things differently.

Hopefully all companies can learn to conduct business differently over time. Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein have all been attributed the adage, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.”And that’s why readers will know that life is all about research, analysis and drawing your own conclusion. So, local businesses know to look at data, draw insights and do something new, better, or different thereafter.

Now, imagine if you can take all the data sets that your company has – some we’ve already mentioned – and link them on one common database. Next, imagine if we could link all the known data sets with all the unknown data sets. Unknown (apparently unstructured) data sets include weather patterns, the competition, articles on Google, documents on your server, company emails, and posts in social media at different times of the day.

Imagine if we could structure all that unstructured data… that’d be big!

And that’s the best way to explain what Big Data is: it’s a premise to bring all the known data sets together (structured data) and then to link all the unknown data sets, (the unstructured).

The result of linking all these data sets gives businesses a better understanding of all customers and the ability to be able to engage smaller groups in smaller ways. On the stage with me at that uncomfortable breakfast, IBM’s Marilies Rumpold-Preining talked about moments of serendipity. The moment when the stars align and you can have a “wow didn’t expect that” moment.

That’s how all the data sets can help a business provide for its customers. That’s a big “wow”. And that’s why we shouldn’t talk about “data”. We should talk about engaging customers in an unprecedented way. Don’t you agree?

I was at a birthday party for my little boy’s class mate. The dads were all chatting about their latest mobile applications. One dad noted that he had more apps on his phone now than ever as every company wants him to download an app.

Yet, he added, he didn’t open more than 10 per cent of those apps.

It’s true, we don’t as “users” open apps. Dear reader, how many apps do you estimate are on your phone – 50, 100? And how many do you use every month.

Why then do companies want new apps? Yes, every business these days wants a new app and conventional wisdom seems to imply that if you don’t have a new mobile app then you’re not on the cutting edge.

Not so. It’s not about having an app. It’s about collecting useful data.

We recently implemented a data management platform from the US that enables a business to do things in-app that were previously only possible on a website. It collects behavioural insights in-app and allows you to engage the owner of the phone in “nice” ways. Easily.

So, rather than cross-selling services, we can now add value. That’s novel for an app.

That’s a novel use of data and is just one bit of small data making a difference. It just goes to show that the epithet “big” isn’t as important as its cousin, “small”.

So, here’s to the end of ‘data-talk’. Instead, let’s talk about understanding audience groups to give them more of moments of serendipity.

 The writer is the Managing Director of the digital and data consultancy, Blue Logic.

This article was first published in Gulf News, Wed 9th March 2016.