Big Data – What’s the Big Deal?

Do you know what Big Data is? A quick web search will bring up the basics  – and also indicate how many column inches have been devoted to this particular hot topic over the last year. Amongst other claims, the vendors tell us that insights derived from Big Data analysis will transform how we manage our customers.

The hype eventually got to me so I took it upon myself to find out how involved with Big Data marketers within UK businesses really were. The answer from everyone I spoke to? It’s certainly a subject that we’re all interested in, but we’re nowhere dealing with Exabyte levels of data, and don’t expect to for years to come.

Data Crunching

What I did discover is the effort that companies are now devoting to making operational use of web analytics data on individual website visitors. Increasingly, the aim is to crunch this behavioural data in real time to support personalisation while someone actually is on a website. Mostly because of this, customer database volumes have grown rapidly over the last few years (though to nowhere near Big Data levels).

Talking to the staff responsible for running these Terabyte-scale customer databases, it turns out there’s one rather small data set they prize above all else: name and address. Why? Because with a valid name and address in hand, they can start making links to other data to find out if this individual is on the database – are they already a customer via another channel? Matching via name and address also opens up a world of reference files that help flesh out the picture of this online visitor, including vital identity verification and credit checking services.

Stating the Obvious

A valid address is central to so many other b2b and b2c business processes too, from minimising direct marketing costs and supporting accurate customer analytics to simply showing the customer your brand is trustworthy enough to get their address right. Missing or inaccurate addresses cost UK businesses untold millions.

Maybe this sounds obvious. It is obvious: excellent addressing is a fundamental part of an efficient business. But that so many companies invest millions in new ecommerce and web analytics systems, yet still ignore the basics of address capture is baffling. Many still rely on the customers themselves to enter their contact details, content to let them grapple with a set of blank text boxes that may or may not match their address format.

Capturing UK and international addresses right first time is critical: any subsequent processing will never match the quality of an address captured correctly in the first place. Most times, a customer’s address arrives as part of a purchase which makes the capture process even more important – not only are you about to find out who this, perhaps repeat, browser is, but the address will be essential in order to validate payment for the transaction and of course, to deliver any physical goods to the right place.

Addressing the Problem

The number of licensed end-users of the Postcode Address File is a good indicator of how seriously UK plc takes addressing and address capture. There were 35,917 in 2010-11, representing a 5% rise over 2008-9, but when you consider that the UK has three million or more active businesses, that’s a paltry figure. Of course, there are many unlicensed per-click users, but the figures show the vast majority of UK businesses don’t use even the simplest address validation tools.

And where addressing tools are used, all too often it’s for basic validation rather than the more advanced – and far more user-friendly – auto-fill on entry. They often don’t suit channels like mobile, and don’t even save the address to the database in a standard format. Postcode Anywhere’s own research found that 44% of online shopping cart abandonments were due to a laborious checkout process. Filling in two sets of billing and delivery address fields took 30-40% of checkout time.

When you consider how easy web services makes it to incorporate modern rapid, auto-fill addressing in a website registration form or to provide it via a PC at any customer touchpoint, this willful hostility to the customer seems almost criminal.

So when IT, marketing and ecommerce think about investing in glamorous high-speed, high-volume databases and real-time web analytics, they should first spare a thought for the basics. Rather than flying to that Big Data conference next week, why not bring your address capture techniques up to date instead?


  • John O’Gorman

    Great column, James…The attention deficit among information technology wonks is exceeded only by the ability of marketeers to take advantage of it.

    If companies took the same attitude as you expouse here with all of their information we wouldn’t have (or need) big data at all.

  • Pingback: Sharing Bigger Data « Liliendahl on Data Quality()