Big data is reshaping our world. Enhancing the vast amount of demographic detail currently available about individuals is a growing body of knowledge about our habits, preferences and situational behavior that's collected with every purchase we make, every "I agree" we click and every step we take (while carrying a GPS-enabled smartphone in our pocket).
This is potentially a boon to marketers, but they're finding it's also a challenge to turn a torrent of information into actionable intelligence.
Still, marketers' desire for yet more information has proven insatiable, and consumers cannot resist the impulse to share personal details. The smartest marketers are exploiting big data in the background to target and lure someone to their businesses, then integrate entertaining ways to collect data that are immediately relevant and applicable to the sales process.
One way to do that is to recognize that narcissism is a key to understanding participation in social media. The selfless concept of "sharing" may be the overarching concept promoted by sites like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and Foursquare, but in fact the underlying motivation for users is often the urge to brag about what they're doing, what they know, what they like and where they've been.
Understanding this, marketers don't simply want customers to buy; they want them to bring others into their purchasing experience and ultimately brag about their acquisitions.
I recently heard a presentation from Martin Stoll, founder and president of Sparkloft Media, which advises travel firms on using social media effectively. By and large, he thinks the travel industry does a terrible job exploiting big data and social media.
"With social media, everyone is a citizen journalist -- and photographer and cinematographer, too -- documenting and broadcasting the most mundane things about their lives," he said.
The fashion industry realizes this better than any other, he maintained, and he offered some striking examples of how data, social media and marketing can be mixed and matched, either exclusively on the Web or in website/retail store combos.
Some Diesel stores, for example, have stations where you can log onto Facebook, take a photo of yourself in jeans you're considering, post it and solicit your friends' opinions about whether they're flattering.
Or, for those who are satisfied with the wisdom of the masses, an H&M store in Brazil puts LCD displays into their hangers that present a live, running count of how many "likes" that particular blouse or jacket has received on its website.
On Polyvore.com, one can put together clothing and accessories from any website to create ensembles, which can be shared to solicit friends' reactions.
Fashism.com enables you to post a photo of yourself (or your clothing, or your nails) and ask a world of strangers, "Love it or Leave it?"
Stoll gave examples of how social media is integrated into other areas of retailing, as well. For example, Crate & Barrel pulls live data from Pinterest accounts to highlight which of their wares is "most Pinned."
As regards travel, he feels two areas are particularly underutilized: amplified bragging and foreknowledge about who will be where, when.
He ran a Web campaign with Atlantis in the Bahamas that prompted, "Click 'Like' if you wish you were spending the night in Atlantis." This resulted in more than 8,000 likes, 194 shares and 255 comments, all of which translated to a viral reach of about 300,000.
Taking a page from fashion, perhaps a Facebook photo station like the one at Diesel near a resort's pool could inspire some bragging. (Bragging, Stoll notes, inspires positive comments, vs. what someone might leave on a review site.)
Stoll also thinks travel companies should provide more information about who's traveling with or near you. Ticketmaster, he noted, shows the seating chart location of everyone who volunteers to share their information.
Overall, I found Stoll's presentation fascinating, but information sharing and virtual matchmaking a la Ticketmaster do not appeal to everyone. On a recent "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," the NPR comedy news quiz show, panelists were told about a program offering passengers a chance to choose whom they might want to sit next to on a plane, based on self-descriptive adjectives supplied by participants. The host asked two dubious panelists how they would describe themselves in the application.
"Murderous," responded the first.
"Gassy," said the second.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.