Data is inundating the economy, overwhelming consumers and businesses with swathes of information that they struggle to comprehend. The overload is set to spiral as social media, mobile and geo-location technologies spew forth yet more reams of data.
With billions of web searches made every month, more than 20,000 new books published weekly and more texts sent daily than there are people on Earth, data is increasing exponentially. The number of exabytes (EB - equal to 1bn GB) of information created in 2011 hit 1750, double the 2009 figure, according to IDC estimates. There is twice as much data as storage capacity.
This torrent of data makes it hard for marketers to ensure their brand messages are heard above the noise. Consumers have become reluctant to open the floodgates to receiving more irrelevant information, and some are wary of providing personal details.
Research company TNS has analysed the way in which consumers 'eat' at this table of information and created five consumer segments based on their readiness to absorb data. It calls the data deluge 'information obesity', and looks at the way people create their own 'eating plans' (see box, page 32).
You are what you 'eat'
'Fast foodies', it says, consume the easiest, lightest data they can find. 'Supplementers' devour as much information as they can. 'Carnivores' consume only meaty chunks - whole books and in-depth research. 'Fussy eaters' are loath to consume information from any source, while 'balanced dieters' never consume too much information; what they do take comes from a variety of sources.
TNS marketing sciences director Russell Bradshaw says these 'eating plans' are a good way for marketers to target resistant consumers. 'By understanding the predominant "eating plans" that exist among their brand franchises, brand managers and chief marketing officers have a tool for maximising the reach, resonance and values of their campaigns,' he says.
TNS analysis suggests that 'carnivores' are more likely to shop at Marks & Spencer, while 'fussy eaters' tend to stock up at Asda. This gives M&S leeway to bolster its communications, giving customers big, meaty chunks of information they can savour slowly. Asda, meanwhile, would do well to deliver information in bursts and offer online nuggets such as tweets to appeal to voucher-hungry customers.
Marketers acknowledge that segmenting consumers by their propensity to consume information can be useful, but many see it as an add-on to the already tough task of identifying relevant audiences.
David Torres, global manager of chemicals technology at Shell Research, says that Shell intends to embed the TNS eating plans into its work, adding that brands need to search the data they have for clear and relevant insights.
Meanwhile, Stephanie Maurel, head of retention at Sport England, says the 'eating plans' could be useful if blended with other tools. 'The TNS data obesity segmentation makes a lot of sense and rings true anecdotally. It is a great idea to segment by the information consumers are prepared to receive, although perhaps this is an extra step to be added to current tools,' she adds.
Maurel's role at Sport England is to use data to help various sports' governing bodies to increase participation and attendance, a challenge for smaller sports, such as hockey. One solution is to take data from grass-roots sources, such as social media, and integrate it with information from elite sports events.
While small sports may be unsophisticated when it comes to data collection, Maurel says some governing bodies are using real-time data to build their popularity.
British Cycling, for example, gets feedback from locally organised Sky Ride mass-cycling events and feeds it through to its board meetings. This, in turn, helps it shape the way in which Sky Rides are organised.
For many brands, the UK's data-chain is dominated by retailers. They control the all-important information about sales, which they then sell back to brand-owners. Nonetheless, retailers, too, are suffering from information overload, according to Chris Osborne, retail principal at software supplier SAP.
A recent survey by SAP found that more than half of retailers believe they have more information than they can handle. 'Structured' data - such as till receipts showing items purchased, times of day, quantities and prices - has been around for decades. Osborne advocates combining this information with 'unstructured' data - such as the random chat of social media - as the next great challenge for brands and retailers.
The prize will be to build a total view of each customer's likes, behaviour and loyalty, and target offers accordingly. A crucial step is ensuring both types of data are gathered and acted upon in real-time.
Osborne believes the development that will enable this is 'in-memory' data analytics, where the data is stored in the computer's memory for quick retrieval, rather than on a conventional database where it is stored on a hard disk, making it harder to access and wasting capacity.
He envisages a two-track economy where success will depend on efficient use of data. 'The retailers that win out will be the ones that are very careful about how they use data and don't swamp consumers with irrelevant offers,' adds Osborne. 'Retailers that create competitive advantage are (also) careful about how often they communicate with consumers.'
Useful data vs 'noise'
Given the retailers' iron grip on data, some brands have turned to comparison website Mysupermarket.co.uk to gain access to information about their own performance through mini-shops on the site. Reckitt Benckiser, Kellogg, Danone and Nivea are among those to have created such stores.
James Foord, vice-president of business development at Mysupermarket.co.uk, says brands are only just beginning to grasp the distinction between 'data noise' and what is useful. The site allows brand-owners to create a direct relationship with consumers and thus control their data. Brands can analyse the battle between their products and stores' own-label versions, for example - data retailers rarely release. 'This is the tip of the iceberg of what is possible. Brand stores will open up a whole new level of insight that has real value,' adds Foord.
The battle for data control is about more than simply capturing as much information as possible and keying it into a database. Finding 'smart' data can save time and money in research and bring significant benefits for brands. The challenge is to find the pieces of information that help a brand locate its best customers and give insights into their motivation for buying a product.
Mike Dodds, chief executive of integrated agency Proximity, recalls a cat-food brand's CRM programme in which customers were questioned about their behaviour. The question that delivered the best data was: 'Do you celebrate your cat's birthday?' The responses helped the brand discover the most involved and valuable customers.
A potential barrier to the development of data-driven marketing will be consumers' attitudes to privacy and control of their personal details. The online giants, such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, have built their businesses on getting users to give up their data in return for 'free' services. If the public refuse to play, this could put a spoke in the wheel of the data economy.
Chris Combemale, executive director at the Direct Marketing Association, says brands have to be upfront about privacy and make their policies simple and readable: 'If you can't put the policy on one page and make it clear, you have an issue.' He also warns brands to avoid being 'creepy' online - by serving ads based on details consumers thought were private - which, he argues, can make digital marketing appear intrusive.
Modern marketing is essentially a battle for data. However, consumers themselves have the ultimate weapon: to switch off and stop sharing their information.
Technology was supposed to make life easier, but, in reality, it has made the world far more complex. The task of creating marketing campaigns that get heard above the din will only get harder still in a society deluged with data.
TNS: INFORMATION OBESITY
TNS divides consumers into five groups according to the way they consume data - the 'fast foodies', 'supplementers', 'carnivores', 'balanced dieters' and 'fussy eaters'. By targeting campaigns to suit these different groups, TNS argues that brands can overcome consumer resistance to the data deluge.
'Fussy eaters' - 15% of the UK population - seem reluctant to fit into modern life and long for a bygone age when the world was less complicated but more personal. They are the hermits of the digital age. They are likely to be retired, working-class people and tend to read the Radio Times. They are horrified by the idea of information obesity and believe new sources of information are alien and destructive to their natural world. They like to have time to reflect and take comfort from what is familiar.
'Supplementers' comprise about 25% of the UK population, although about 40% of marketers belong to this group. They see information as a means of building social status and are desperate to consume as much information as possible.
They are 10 times more likely to use Twitter than 'carnivores', tend to shop at Next and use eBay. The way they are perceived socially is important to them and they feel pressured by the world and their place in it. They will cram in whatever information they can from mobile internet, RSS feeds or podcasts. They want facts, but in capsule-sized chunks, delivered imaginatively while being from credible sources. The drawback is that all this knowledge is pointless without context and they will never remember all the information anyway. They suffer data obesity because they crave too much information.