Angelia McFarland is Director, Product Marketing, Programs and Operations at Dell Technologies and a speaker on the influence of technology.
The concept of data, in its most elemental form—words, images, numbers, sounds—has informed human existence since the beginning of humanity. But digital data—data that is transformed, captured or created in electronic format—is a relatively new concept and has had an outsized impact on our lives. However, the existence of data is so elemental that until the process of digitization, few understood its scale and power.
Today, we have vast amounts of digital data at our disposal, and our relationship to data has changed. We now talk in terms of gigabytes and terabytes. We talk about privacy and accessibility. We want the highest fidelity in our media. We know data…or do we?
We are all talking about data, but do we really understand how and why data is such an important part of society? Do we understand why data analytics has become part of almost every marketing discipline? I believe a clear understanding of the current data opportunity requires a view of the journey.
Data As A Human Aid
In the early days of data processing, digital data was primarily used to accelerate human capability. Consider the space race, when early machine computers assisted human computers by accelerating the time to complete complex calculations. What was once solely a human intellectual process was now aided by machine computers.
At this point, marketers paid little attention to data because there was little value to the marketing process. But this was the point at which data moved beyond human capacity for speed and recall. And it is an important benchmark for comparison as we explore the data journey.
The Age Of Transactional Data
With advances in digital networks, computing extended from large air-conditioned data centers and into devices like cash registers, ATMs and personal computers, and even those without special skills had the ability to benefit from the power of digital data. Activities that required human interaction, like banking, could now be completed by an ATM (automated teller machine). Credit card processing, which was once a delayed process, could be completed in real time. And manual tasks like typing and accounting could now be digitized, easily edited and stored on removable media.
In this era, data was used to transact with others by solving general problems for many different people many times a day. Once the transaction was complete, the data was stored for future reference.
Transactional data provided great value to the marketing department. The data stored for each transaction could be analyzed and used to help direct the marketing strategy. However, the process was expensive and required special skills; therefore, only marketing departments with access to significant IT resources could use data insights.
Interconnection And Rapid Digitization
The introduction of the internet and, later, smartphones brought data access directly into our homes and hands. In addition to increased connection, this was a period of rapid digitization. In a short span of time, almost all transactions and media were transitioned to a digital-first model. We could access every account, song, book and movie on a range of computing devices and transact with companies and individuals instantaneously.
The creation and management of data were no longer centralized and controlled by a single organization or individual. In other words, marketing didn’t need IT to gather and process the data. Customers could be engaged directly through social media, online survey tools and mobile applications. The ease of access gave every marketing department—from enterprise to sole proprietor—the ability to engage and develop direct relationships with customers and collect their data.
Human-Device-Interaction And The Rise Of Artificial Intelligence (AI)
In our increasingly digital society, technology is integrated into everything from coffee makers to deep-space telescopes, and data is becoming a byproduct of life. We generate data when we sleep, exercise and drive because technology has become a component of almost every system, device and tool. Data is also changing. Today’s devices can create hundreds of data points from simple activities like a walk around the block (location, time at location, route, heart rate, pace, elevation and more). Instead of single data points, data has become a complex web of interactions and metadata (data about the data).
Now, marketing departments can leverage AI-enabled applications to help them optimize campaigns, predict customer behavior, recommend offers and discover new opportunities. Unlike previous data applications, many AI-enabled applications are available as a service and thus accessible to marketing departments at every resource level.
Are You Ready To Take Your Seat?
Digital data has changed significantly from the first commercially available computer to now. We started this journey understanding how data and computing complemented human capability. As technology advanced and became more integrated into our society, we gained the ability to capture more data than humans could calculate in a lifetime; therefore, we leverage AI-enabled applications to do what we cannot. Each stop on the data journey created opportunities for marketing departments to transform customer relationships and business opportunities.
Data is a critical asset for every organization, and marketing should be at the table, helping define and refine how it is used. Marketing professionals are the heralds, the innovators, who usher in new ways of thinking. We can’t assist with our organizations’ processes around data if we don’t understand it. If you assessed your data knowledge today, would you give yourself a passing grade? I hope so. If not, I hope you will commit to learning and contributing to the field of knowledge around data because, as marketers, we have a responsibility to our customers, organizations and profession. We need to get this one right.
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