I’m often asked, “What is big data?” Frankly, everyone’s favorite buzzword means very little. Because when you get right down to it, data is simply a mass of collected information that is saved into a database. And in our attempt to not overlook or collect every useful piece of information about our customers, we simply collect everything we can. As digital storage and processing power have increased in capacity and decreased in cost, we’re technologically able to capture more data (much more data), and thus we are now in the age of big data. Many experts have speculated that people will generate, and companies will collect, more data than what’s housed in the Library of Congress on a daily basis in the very near future.

I’m sure many of you can see the challenge here. Big data, on its own sitting in a database, has no value. It is not the amount of data people produce or any one company can capture, it’s the people who can cull that data down to actionable information. It’s developing processes to make that data relevant. And, for marketers, it’s understanding what pieces of data—when mixed with research and experience—paint the true picture of the customer segments that will become genuine brand advocates, breed brand affinity and bring the highest financial return to the company.

Recently, at the 2013 ePharma Summit, Christopher Frank from American Express and Paul Magnone from Openet discussed how companies, and specifically pharma, will need to employ tools that can help us aggregate, manipulate and visualize the data in a quest to make better business decisions. But what then? Adria Saracino in her article, Why Big Data Isn’t the End-All for Content Marketing, makes a strong point that big data must be mixed with market research to develop digital customer personas (bit.ly/ClickZData). But, it doesn’t stop there. Recognizing behavior and segmenting customers are only two-thirds of the equation. Marketers will have to take that information and make hard decisions about how to develop customer relationships across the continuum from awareness to conversion to affinity through an informed and relevant marketing mix. And the big data-era version of a marketing mix will be very different from what we’ve seen in the past.

The marketing mix of tomorrow is not online or offline, digital or traditional, it’s all of those. It will simply be marketing. And marketers that don’t understand analytics, data collection, aggregation, curation and visualization, advanced market research, segmentation, branding, and the nuances of integrated marketing across all platforms or channels will waste a lot of money for a lot of brands and quickly drive them into irrelevance in the marketplace.

Of course, this is all even more complicated for pharma marketers because we are dealing with peoples’ health. We must understand each patient’s journey and be even more relevant than, say, someone selling running shoes or soft drinks. We must use the data we collect, our market research, our marketing minds, our understanding of healthcare and a dash of compassion to create genuine relationships and help our customers.

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