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Has Big Data Taken The Human Out Of Human Behavior?


Consumer Transactions And Clicks Provide Incomplete Picture For Marketers

In junior high school sciences, I learned about Homo sapiens, otherwise known as human beings. I recall that humans are distinguished from other animals by their superior mental development, ability to articulate through speech, think and question, and create things. Later in life, I learned about the human conscious and unconscious mind which determines human actions and reactions to stimuli. No two humans are exactly alike, and I haven’t even gotten into the differences between genders.

Over the past couple of years, I, like most of you, began hearing of a marketing term applied to data analytics called “big data.” One proponent of this data analysis method has been IBM and they have posted the following definition of big data on their website as follows:

“Big data is being generated by everything around us at all times. Every digital process and social media exchange produces it. Systems, sensors and mobile devices transmit it. Big data is arriving from multiple sources at an alarming velocity, volume and variety. To extract meaningful value from big data, you need optimal processing power, analytics capabilities and skills.”

What does big data have to do with Homo sapiens? On the surface not a whole lot, but in practice it has come to serve almost as a surrogate for human behavior. Therein may be the problem. By ascribing complex human behavior knowledge to historical transactional activities or digital clicks without understanding the motivation and stimuli that influence behaviors, marketers may be getting an incomplete, and many times inaccurate, one dimensional picture of human consumers. This picture of consumers relies too heavily on analytic assumptions and judgements rather than hard evidence from the human mind.

So how is it that the analysis of “every digital process and social media exchange” analyzed with today’s computing power gets marketers any closer to the whys and hows of the consumer mind? If human actions and reactions usually happen at the unconscious level, where does that get factored into today’s surveillance-based big data systems? It seems as if the frenzy over big data, which has generated billions in investments for platforms and software to analyze it ultimately gets down to marketers attempting to target an ad better.

Today dozens of Silicon Valley-backed companies are ready and willing to mine a company’s customers’ files and their online clicks. Mining customers’ data files and segmenting customer transactions is nothing new. However, the advent of digital searching and posting created vast data flows that marketers hoped would solve all marketing challenges through enhanced targeting. It also required the need for increased processing power and software platforms to analyze, visualize and serve. While searching and posting may indicate what an interest may be, it doesn’t provide why the human mind was stimulated to act.

In addition, marketers are only now coming to appreciate some of the shortcomings of digital world data, primarily fraud. The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and White Ops recently released a report about the growing problem of ad bots which it claims will cost advertisers $7 billion in 2016, up almost $1 billion from 2015. This amount is in the ballpark with a December 2015 report from the Interactive Ad Bureau which pegged ad fraud at $8 billion.

For marketers who are analyzing and trying to exploit digital advertising, they are serving ads to bots upwards of 50%+, according to a Google study. Not much humanity in these big data initiatives. Seems as if the more technology is used, the further away from consumers’ minds marketers get. Small wonder that some marketers are starting to question historical transaction and online click models of big data as the Holy Grail. The growing interest in Neuroscience applied to marketing, now called Neuromarketing, is gaining traction among marketers.

One group that is actively pursuing the integration of Neuroscience and technology and has redefined neuromarketing as the science of Integrated Influence is the Applied Neuromarketing Consortium (ANC) at Northwestern University. The ANC is composed of Scientists and Academics from across the country but primarily from Northwestern’s Medill, Kellogg and Feinberg School of Medicine.

The goal is to develop new marketing models to integrate the best from big data analytics and influence based upon how stimuli of the human mind relate to perception, memory and decision making. In other words big data may provide info on what people did, but neuromarketing gets to the why they did it and which stimuli influences decisions.

Dr. Martin Block, a co-author of the Frontiers in Neuroscience article mentioned earlier and professor at the Medill School, sums up the value of influence this way:

“Various data used by marketers have different consumption or usage measures and in some cases almost nothing beyond overall spending as is typically found in store activity. However, influence is a consistent measure across all marketing inputs. Influence allows a marketer to directly compare seemingly different categories such as TV, coupons and shopper loyalty card. Fusing big data transaction data and social data along with conscious and unconscious mind shopping behavior data presents a new single view of how marketers may be able to influence behaviors. The influence measure has to be accepted at face value.”

Much has been invested in and written about big data and most of the applications end up with better targeting an ad based upon what a person did in the past. For many the hoped-for big data outcomes have hit a bump in the road as a result of the two issues mentioned earlier:

  • Digital bot fraud
  • Big databases devoid of human mind stimuli

Numerous times in the past, this blog has written about the short comings of Big Data and also the Ad Waste resulting from outdated marketing models. Perhaps the timing is now right for marketers to move beyond pure ad targeting technology and recognize that human behaviors usually begin with stimuli of the unconscious mind. Figuring out how to micro target an ad without this understanding falls short of the human emotions needed to influence behaviors.

To see this in action, note which reasons women say are the most important for choosing a retail channel for apparel. Since 2010...

  • No less than 80% say price,
  • No less than 60% say selection, and
  • No more than 10% say advertising.

For big data to fulfill its big mission it needs to get beyond surveillance data collection methods that only report what behaviors people engaged in and begin to integrate a human component that informs marketers about the most important aspect of behavior – the why and how to influence.


Gary Drenik is CEO of Prosper Insights & Analytics, a company that prides itself on turning data into evidence-based solutions for the C-Suite.

Disclosure/disclaimer: Prosper grants data access on consumer behavior and media influence to over 14 of the U.S.’s leading universities, including The Medill School of Integrated Marketing at Northwestern. Prosper makes no warranties, either expressed or implied, concerning: data gathered or obtained from any source; the present or future methodology employed in producing PI&A statistics; or the PI&A data and estimates represent only the opinion of Prosper and reliance thereon and use thereof shall be at the user’s own risk.


This article was written by Gary Drenik from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.