How to Use Big Data for Effective Customer Insight


Social networking sites are a gold mine of information about customers for companies, says Joanne Sweeney-Burke, Director of Digital Training Institute. However, the challenge is interpreting that data intelligently. In this interview, Joanne Sweeney-Burke describes some of the key ways that successful companies leverage big data to get insight into customer behavior.

This interview was featured in PEX Network’s recent report "Deriving Value from the Data Deluge." To download the full report, please click here.

PEX Network: Joanne, from a social perspective, how can big data be leveraged to provide real insight into customer behaviour?

Joanne Sweeney-Burke: When we look at the social web, it tracks customer behaviour by its very nature. So every time we take an action – follow somebody on Twitter; like something on Facebook – we’re telling the social web quite a lot about ourselves. We’re telling them who we like and what interests we have; we’re sharing our opinions; we’re having conversations; we’re sharing who we’re connected with and the nature of that relationship. Very quickly, by one or two actions on the social web, we’re providing a huge volume of data.

The other thing to say is that, social networking sites are built on data. That’s the reason why Facebook is now trying to compete with Google for the search market, because they have aggregated far more data about their users than Google has about [Facebook’s] users. So, big data, in terms of social web, is absolutely phenomenal, and it’s a new phenomenon that I think most companies trading on the web haven’t even grasped.

The other thing to note is that we’re not seeing Software as a service (SaaS) becoming one of the big industries because they have realised that data sells. Being about to use analytical tools to run your business and to drive sales marketing is absolutely invaluable now. For me, I use multiple software as a service from accounting packages to analytical tools, to marketing and CRM – that’s certainly the future. A lot of these sites and companies are creating APIs to interact with other pieces of software. Our own campaign at the moment is looking at the benefits that social media can provide to law enforcement. Within that, I can target people who are interested in law enforcement in social media. If they’re searching the social web for these key words, I can tell the internet to place my ad in front of them – not only when they visit my site, but when they visit other sites.

PEX Network: Do you, from your position, see any trends in terms of the sectors that are grasping this idea quicker than the others, or engaging with it in a particularly effectively way?

Joanne Sweeney-Burke: Just from my own observations, certainly the tech and digital marketing world are doing it well, simply because this is their industry. I would say to a lesser extent you have other types of industries doing it well because it’s central to what they need.

Recruitment agencies are all about people; they’re all about data; they’re all about profiling individuals. They’re using big data to help them find the right people and produce an executive search. That’s certainly one industry that has embraced it.

Retail has embraced it too, but I would say there’s a huge divide. Some companies are doing it well and still experimenting, but I don’t think anybody has ‘cracked the nut’ or has a perfected plan.

The big players in professional services, like accountancy and legal, have not made it there yet but they’re certainly testing things and putting plans in place when it comes to using data and using SaaS.

I can't see any others that are racing ahead. The tech and digital marketing people are almost acting as the testers and the trailblazers. Everyone else is following behind and really trying to find a place for themselves.

PEX Network: From those experiments, has anything risen to the top of the pile as being proven principles that we need to start applying across the board?

Joanne Sweeney-Burke: What I’m seeing at the moment is that content marketing is a huge thing – and it’s actually changing. User-generated content and engagement is the future. You need to have other people talking about you, as opposed to you talking about yourself.

Also, video is transforming the social web. It creates three layers of data. The first is the keywords behind the video. The second is the video itself. The third is people sharing it. Now, with 360-degree video, we not only have the main player that is shooting the video, we have every single individual featured in that video and indirectly becoming part of the story. They’re predicting that by 2018, 80 percent of the content on the web viewed on mobile will be video, and you can see that Facebook are transforming the way they operate to reflect that – moving from text-only status updates, to photo-sharing, and now video.

Broadcasting, as a tool, is becoming important. We’re deepening the conversation layers. To have a social media conversation today could involve Periscoping and livestreaming. Blab is coming into the market now, which is all about hosting a live broadcast with several people and allowing people on a Twitter feed to jump in. What that’s doing is bringing trust to an extra level. I might be an influencer who you’ve heard about from someone or you've come across my blog – but if we suddenly have a weekly TV show using the platform Blab, we’re now deepening conversations between influencer and audience. It’s both live and recorded (for redistribution). People are chatting on the fly in front of their keyboards, and it’s there on the social web forever. These are very loose conversations, providing real customer insight at a deeper level. Video is going to be a game-changer in terms of the data that it provides.

PEX Network: So you’ve got your massive stack of data ready to sift through and apply commercially. How do you know where to start, given that there is so much information flooding in? Is it all relevant?

Joanne Sweeney-Burke: No, the internet is a noisy place. It’s really hard to disseminate the relevant from the irrelevant; the influence from the chaff; the potential buyer from the time (and resource) waster.

I was at the Web Summit in Dublin and much of the conversation over the three days was about predictive analytics. We’re now no longer looking at last week’s traffic in making marketing decisions. We’re now pulling all the data of what our customers have done over a period of time and using it to predict what they’re going to do next. We're ‘future selling’ to them.

SaaS is a huge business because you've got lots of companies trying to decipher the relevant from the irrelevant. For example, Channel Mechanics is a company headquartered at the Technology Transfer Centre at NUI Galway with offices in the US and the UK. They’ve built a sales and project management system to speed up getting promotions and sales programmes to market. That’s what it’s all about. We need the software to do all the automation and analysis for us because it’s just no longer possible for a human being to do it. So I think SaaS, predictive analytics, and automation of human tasks is probably what we need.

PEX Network: Does that make the human redundant?

Joanne Sweeney-Burke: Oh, no. We’ll always need humans. When we lived through the industrial revolution, we thought that the motor car would replace animals and humans, but it’s just a natural evolution. We’re becoming more intelligent and we now have access to this technology. We actually don’t have enough people producing the type of engineering software needed to deal with big data. In my book on law enforcement and social media, I talk about the future of law enforcement communication departments, and the fact that they should not be made up of police officers. They should be made up of software engineers; data analytical people; people skilled in content creation and curation. We’re behind in terms of up-skilling people to deal with this new phenomenon. People will definitely always have a role, but we need to push more people into the IT sciences, engineering and technology. That’s where the skills gaps are.

In my own company, 2016 will focus on systems, processes and software, in order to try and solve my business problems. I’ve done the rest – the community, the brand, the products – but, now it’s about driving forward on the customer base and driving sales, and that will require both analytical people and software.