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Big Data Fails to Whip the Llama's Ass

Big data will be our savior! It will optimize everything, increase sales and adoption, make productivity skyrocket and pick up all of your drycleaning.  If you're not taking classes in data science or already working in a career path that leads to being a data scientist, you're going to be out of a job inside of 10 years.

...So says the hype about big data.  But to quote Public Enemy, my stance is "don't believe the hype."  Big data certainly is helpful, and the information it provides can be extremely valuable – but it's not the be-all-end-all of business, and its output can be harmful if it's the only basis used to make business decisions.  (You may be asking yourself how this involves llamas... don't worry, that's coming.)

Anyone who knows a human will tell you that we are emotional, unpredictable beings who sometimes make decisions based on gut feelings, intuition, persuasion or even spite. The fact that humans make choices based on aspects other than logic or data-powered reasoning creates a chasm between correlation and connection.  Just because a predictive data set says a person is likely to do/buy/subscribe to something, it doesn't necessarily mean that they actually will.  That's where human-generated content, marketing, promotion and creativity come into play.

Humans are capable of creating campaigns, materials and experiences that yield feelings and cause people to form emotional bonds with brands, services or products.  Those emotional connections can either reinforce – or, in some cases, supersede – logic, data and machine prediction.  And now, to prove that point, we get to the llamas.

Recently, the return of Winamp was announced, with many across the Internet cheering the news. Winamp was one of the first-ever widely available MP3 players; it launched in 1997 and quickly grew over just a few years to 60 million users, gaining the title of one of the most downloaded software pieces for Windows along the way.  Customers appreciated its usability and customizable features, including the ability to install new skins and plugins, adjust multi-frequency equalizers and take advantage of online forums and developer resources.  And people enjoyed the product's tagline, along with the related sound effects that accompanied the software:  "Winamp: It really whips the llama's ass!"  It all created a sense of personality, creativity and community around the product that was unequaled at the time.

Winamp built a hard-core population of users that loved the application.  But the company that developed it, Nullsoft, was sold to AOL. Winamp's corporate resources dwindled after the purchase, followed by (and perhaps also accelerated further by) the departure of its original development team.  The last two major updates to the software were released in 2007 and 2013 – and the 2013 release came with an announcement that it would shortly become unavailable for new downloads.  

Despite having access to more robust software like iTunes, hundreds of thousands of Winamp's user base went against logic and, based on their emotional attachment to it, stuck with their 5- or 10-year-old application.  I have friends who refused to upgrade their personal computers from Windows 7 simply because they didn't want to lose access to Winamp.  There are tons of Google auto-completes about "why did Winamp shut down" and "why did Winamp die".  Quora has a slew of threads running where people still express their love of Winamp and, for those who did move on to iTunes, talk about what they miss about Winamp the most.  And they rejoiced to hear that Winamp will live again, with many potentially moving back to its reincarnated version.

Big data could not have predicted the long-term relationships and emotional connections that Winamp formed with its user base.  Big data could not have come up with a llama-related marketing campaign and slogan that engaged its audience.  Big data could not have created the community that Winamp's parent company did.  

So while big data and data scientists may play a role in helping companies more surgically target customers who are projected to be more likely to engage with them based on their offerings, there will always be a need for the human touch – for marketers, for content-generators, for audience-builders, for promoters and connectors.  Don't get me wrong:  There's definitely a place for computers and those who analyze the data that comes from them, as they can help optimize and better target marketing efforts...  but they'll never whip the llama's ass.

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