These days there isn't a headline or piece of content on the whole wide web that isn't influenced, in some way, by data. In fact, for companies whose success depends on courting and converting customers online, big data is now (arguably) the most important competitive advantage to gain in the digital marketplace. Just look at the tooth-and-nail battle between social platforms like Facebook and Twitter for marketing dollars. Though active user figures are important, it is the maturity of each platform's ad product — that is, its ability to leverage data to enable brands to engage with consumers in relevant and authentic ways — that determines revenue potential.


The Key: Make Big Data Little Again

Big data isn't just here to stay, it's here to take over. However, as paranoid email subject lines and viral social media posts continue to prove, it's still a delicate issue for the masses. To harness data as a tool for repeat engagement and customer loyalty, it must be wielded carefully and adeptly. I had the chance to speak with several industry leaders about this very subject. Over the course of our conversations, we identified four essential steps for achieving this — segmentation, information, optimization, and protection. Watch the full conversation below or download a copy of the complete transcript here.

1. Segmentation

The collection of big data is no longer the monumental task it was just a year or two ago. There are now countless intuitive platforms and tools in the market that mine, organize, and report data for companies large and small. It's where you take the data from there that matters today. Before you rush off to content and messaging, however, there is a critical step that is often delayed or skipped completely — segmentation. For larger companies, the concept is a familiar one. Michelle Killebrew, Digital Marketing Program Director at IBM, illustrates:

"You can imagine there are hundreds of solutions across IBM's portfolio," she says. "And the majority of the personas in our database are IT related. So how do you define which brand has the right to touch that person with the next best message?" Michelle continues. "We have so much data that we can slice and dice in so many different ways. I think it's not only about looking at how can you personalize that next interaction, but drilling into the database and trying to figure out who that ideal segmentation is."

It may seem obvious, but leveraging behavioral data alone does not drive loyalty or lead to sustained growth. Assigning these behaviors to unique subsets of consumers assures that future messaging and content streams are pure and, more importantly, relatable. For some marketers, segmentation can be done effectively on a one-to-one basis. For most of us, it must be done at a group level. Either way, it's important to realize this is an ongoing, dynamic process that will continue to evolve and change as your company grows.

2. Information

In many ways, segmentation and information are parallel processes that rely upon each other. As behavioral data rolls in (from your website, email marketing campaigns, social content, etc.) it both guides the process of segmentation and dictates the content and messaging that will ultimately be served to those segments. Philippe Von Borries, Co-Founder and CEO of Refinery29, relies on this concept of informed content more than most:

"[The most important thing is] being able to, through technology, through data, continue to build content that actually speaks to the person and their behavior on Refinery29, what they're interested in, and to provide them with more of that content," he explains.

The lesson? Keeping your messaging and content focused on your most vital consumer segments allows you to keep your eye on the prize. Von Borries continues:

"For us it is really about building an incredibly respected voice for women throughout the world. [You want to make sure that] people don't come through the side door who really don't connect with your brand."

At Refinery29, the numbers back up the theory. 46% of page views come from just 34% of the site's visitors who visit Refinery an average of nine times per month. More impressive still, only 12% of traffic goes directly to the home page, while 50% of the traffic comes in through email. Personalized content drives loyalty. Loyalty drives business.

3. Optimization

All of this data may be black and white, but your consumers rarely (read: never) are. The third step in leveraging data to build customer loyalty is perhaps the most important of all — optimization. You've no doubt heard the concept of "test, learn, optimize" before. In fact, you've probably heard it today. It's the strategy used by virtually every successful content marketer in previous years, and has only gotten more effective as the world of big data has evolved. Von Borries prefers the term relentless testing, which he describes as "continuous, continuous, continuous iteration and testing on everything from headlines to images to stories themselves."

In effect, optimization is simply the process by which segmentation and information must happen. As time goes on and larger swaths of data become available, the people you choose to speak to and the content you use to speak to them with will become more relevant, more authentic, and ultimately more potent. It's this veritable feedback loop that continually strengthens the bond between company and consumer, ensuring repetitive engagement. Once started, it can never be stopped.

4. Protection

But it's all for naught if your customers don't trust you with their data, as Jeannie Chu, Director of Brand Marketing and Communications at American Express, is quick to point out. This is where protection comes in. "For us, the ability to test and learn is amazing," she explains. "But I think we also have to balance that with the security and trust people have in us." For American Express, one of the world's largest and most recognizable financial institutions, this is especially important.

"If it's on our dot-com, it could be a security breach for us," Chu continues. "So [while] it is about testing and learning and leveraging and mining data as much as possible, there is [also] that 'make sure we send out guys to check the security camera of the data server somewhere in Israel, because we care' piece." It is a fragile issue, and a notoriously difficult one to handle. For American Express, it all comes down to communication and education. "You trust us because we are really crazy about keeping it secure. I have to take about 30+ trainings a year and I'm in Marketing… it's weird," Chu jokes.

Don't Forget the Human Touch!

While the proper use and handling of big data is essential to achieving growth and customer loyalty in the modern digital world, Killebrew, Von Borries, and Chu were all careful to point out one missing piece — the human touch. Chu put it best:

"I don't want to say that data isn't important because it's kind of the cornerstone of how we make decisions," she caveats. "But there always has to be the person that says, 'Okay and the editorial lens is this.' At the end of the day, if we tell good stories then hopefully I can tell you about a Global Assist product or the insurance on your card and you won't say, 'That's boring.' And hopefully you'll retain that someday when you need it."