tangled fishing lineI know, I know . . . Hairballs are disgusting, and years ago, I never would have dreamed of associating something so repulsive with my chosen profession, marketing. But that was before – before marketers had to manage an ever-expanding array of channels and processes, before we had all kinds of data bombarding us non-stop, before we had to dig through countless treasure troves of information to improve the customer experience. Now all of these things, when left unchecked, contribute to an enormously complex mess I like to call “the data hairball” – and more and more marketers are challenged by it every day.

What exactly IS the data hairball?

Metaphorically speaking I see the data hairball as the biggest obstacle to improving customer engagement. It is the complicated jumble of interactions, applications, data and processes that accumulate haphazardly when companies are unprepared to handle information from a wide range of sources. More than the “data deluge” or the “sea of data” you’ve all read about, extending those notions, the data hairball would be the shoreline after a tsunami, but prior to reconstruction.

To me, the data hairball embodies both the promise and the threat behind big data and digital channels, and whenever I mention it to a roomful of marketers, I sense immediate recognition.

Heads start nodding in agreement. Nervous smiles appear. Some people shuffle their feet as if they could sidestep the very thought of it. Audiences know exactly what I’m talking about when I use the term.

But, that doesn’t surprise me.

After all, marketers are the ones on the front lines, battling with the chaos of traditional and digital information that’s now piling up 24/7. We’re the ones who recognize the colossal complexity of the situation. We’ve all felt the knot of anxiety in our stomachs when we’ve been called into the C-suite to present strategies that often lack the supporting data we know we need to make a compelling case.

While I was working on my book this spring, Jeffrey Hayzlett, the former CMO of Kodak who now serves as an advisor to other CMOs and CEOs, admitted to me that he knew the data hairball all too well and that he had struggled with it at Kodak.

“I was coughing up the data hairball every day,” Hayzlett told me. “At the time, Kodak had unique lines of business focused on their markets, printers, cameras— just to name a couple. Each of those divisions had siloed information they simply weren’t sharing effectively across the enterprise. All I wanted to do was answer the following simple question, ‘What are the names of the 1,500 customers who purchased one of our high-value printers?’”

Then he laughed.

“If someone asked me to produce that list with 24 hour notice or else they’d kill my children, I’d be childless today,” Hayzlett said. “I couldn’t have come up with those names. The systems were broken, even though the data did exist.”

That’s the data hairball.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve discussed why the C-suite is feeling more and more like a goat rodeo and how outdated processes are preventing companies from realizing the true value of data-driven marketing. Now that I’ve defined the data hairball, I’ll explore how you can start unraveling it to leverage the big data insights you need to optimize all aspects of your marketing and customer experience.

The good news? It’s all manageable. But as we all know, no journey can begin without taking those first few strategic steps.

This post appeared first at The Marketing Revolution, my blog at Forbes.com.

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