Andrew Walmsley on Digital: The new data

Andrew Walmsley on Digital: The new data
Andrew Walmsley on Digital: The new data

Many brands have yet to exploit the wealth of consumer information available from online sources.

When I started out in advertising, I read The Sun every morning, without fail. Of course, there were lots of other (significantly more expensive) ways of staying in touch with what the UK was thinking, but in the late 80s the Currant Bun had its finger more firmly on the nation's pulse than anyone; and five minutes skimming through its pages yielded a zeitgeist inoculation that kept you from falling behind all day.

When the web emerged, it was not long before tools evolved to offer insights into what people were doing online. The Magellan search engine had a page known as Voyeur, which listed the 20 most-recent searches. Generally, most of these queries related to Pamela Anderson, with a few about particle physics, but that was more a function of web users' profile back then.

Yet, we marketing folk are more inclined to talk than listen, and this colours how we perceive opportunities. Give a marketer a Tube station staircase and they'll place a McDonald's ad on it. We see everything as a chance to push our message out to people, and nowhere is this more true than on the web, where billions of ads assail users every day.

The web is also a goldmine of information on what consumers think and do. Magellan Voyeur heralded an important area of value that marketers could derive from the web, and one for which, 15 years later, most are still only starting to create structured approaches.

There are three types of data sources to consider here: owned, bought and free. Owned data includes website analytics, adserving, call-centre traffic and EPOS. While integrating these sources is no walk in the park, some systems are now enabling parts of them to be joined up, although real issues still exist in the quality of data, due to errors in coding. It doesn't matter how sophisticated your analysis is - if the data is garbage, your strategy is guesswork.

There is an explosion in the supply of paid-for tools, particularly in social media. Buzz monitoring has the potential to let marketers take the market's temperature toward brands, tracking trends and alerting them to problems before they reach critical mass. The sales pitch is compelling if you're ticking boxes, but no one system can reach all parts of the social graph, and some are better than others at understanding sarcasm, slang, and text speak.

Many free tools supplement the paid offerings, the most prominent being Google's Insights for Search tool. The volume of queries here gives it census-like authority, and it has a powerful ability to enable us to follow interest in brands, people and concepts over time.

The problem has never been a shortage of data. Instead, the challenge is in drawing a picture, creating structure from the chaos.

Editd is one of a new generation of companies addressing this. The fashion business reflects a trend we see across business, moving from planning cycles to continuous release - from seasons to six-week spot to shelf. Among its tools, Editd is using visual-recognition software to scan thousands of images from the runways, drawing out themes - colours, cuts, prints - and feeding the data back to a team of analysts that, in turn, feed it to eager fashionistas through an online dashboard, weeks before traditional channels can report. It has introduced technology to a hitherto exclusively human domain, and in doing so is combining human and tech to revolutionise not just accuracy, but lag to implementation.

I was going to round off with one of those neat circular conclusions, noting that, unlike The Sun, you can't read online analytics as Samuel Pepys would have it 'at stool'. However, Editd has just released an iPad app. Is nothing sacred?

- Andrew Walmsley is a digital pluralist

30 SECONDS ON ... The Sun

- The Sun was launched by IPC in September 1964 to replace the failing Daily Herald. At first it performed badly, losing more circulation and money than its predecessor.

- In 1969 both Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch tried to buy the paper. Murdoch prevailed, having won union support, and promised to retain The Sun's pro-Labour stance.

- Murdoch relaunched the title as a tabloid, copying the Mirror's white-on-red title. In 1970, it began printing photos of topless models on page three. In 1978 it overtook the Mirror's circulation and in the 1979 election it switched its backing to the Conservatives.

- Kelvin MacKenzie, The Sun's editor from 1981, cemented this shift, strongly supporting Margaret Thatcher on issues such as the miners' strike and the Poll Tax. Circulation increased, largely driven by the introduction of bingo.

- In 1986 production shifted from Fleet Street to a purpose-built facility in Wapping, sparking a year-long industrial dispute with workers who had been sacked as a result.

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