Oh the Humanity! Big Data, Automation, and Social Media

by Ken Mueller on April 10, 2013 · 9 comments

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In my very first paid job in radio, back in the 80’s, I did overnights at a pair of stations in Western PA. Our FM station was automated, and while I was live on-air on the AM side, I recorded my breaks for the FM. Yes, I was a DJ on two separate radio stations at the same time. I had to look ahead at the logs, figure out which song would play when, and say the appropriate things. Sometimes 5 or 6 hours in advance. Now remember, this was in the days of automation where computers weren’t quite so sophisticated, so there was a lot of guess work involved, and when it worked, it was wonderful. But the entire process was fraught with all sorts of opportunities for error. And boy, was there error. Thankfully there weren’t many people listening at 3 in the morning!

I was reminded of this process several months ago when I read an article by Mark Ramsey, titled Great Radio is Heavy on Humanity. Radio is an industry that has evolved, and often for the worse. At some point in the 70’s, research took over, and automation soon followed. The entire process became rather formulaic, and today, most radio stations are rather indistinguishable from one another. I could write blog after blog about the long history of radio, and it’s transformation over the years, as that is a particular area of interest and research of mine, but that will have to wait for another time. This post is about the larger aspects of business.

The inspiration for Mark’s piece was related to a quote he gave from Seth Godin’s book, The Icarus Deception. In it, Seth says:

We don’t need more stuff, we need more humanity.

That quote hits me right where I am at this moment. I think about what is happening in the online world, and more specifically with the way business are using social media, and I see the parallels, albeit on a much faster learning curve.

In radio, most anyone will point to the consultants as the cause of the decline of this once great medium. Outsiders who got paid to come in and make things “work” for them. Cut costs, increase sales, and the like.

The end result is that it sucked the humanity, or perhaps personality, out of the industry. This is why I’m concerned about marketing on the social web. By nature we are social creatures. As Mack Collier points out in his recent post at Spin Sucks,

“If we were to start naming the reasons why most people use social media, our top three choices might look something like this:

  • To stay in touch with friends and family
  • To stay up to date on news and information that’s important to us
  • To network and connect with others to improve our lives (maybe job-hunting or dating)

The point is, we use social media because we are trying to fulfill our own self-interests, not because we want to sell more stuff for Brand X.”

We are on social media for ourselves, not for the businesses and marketers who are there. We are there to be social. Go figure.

But now the conversation, at least in marketing circles, has turned to things like automation and big data, and influence. Everyone is talking about them and trying to figure out how to harness big data to sell more; how to use automation to cut costs and increase profits. How to harness influence to make more money.

I’m not anti-data, and I’m not necessarily anti-automation. And while I have reservations about how it is measured, influence is a key component to the social economy. But the conversation scares me. It’s less of an issue for me and my clients, because most of them are small businesses and they’ll never be able to afford any real automation or big-data enterprise solutions unless they become much more scalable.

I think what bothers me the most is that for many businesses, data and automation are not seen as tools, they are seen as quick fixes and shortcuts. The mentality is that if we cut here, and cut there, and replace this with something leaner, we’ll be able to do more and make more. While I understand the need to increase the bottom line, I worry about the end result. I wonder what this will do to how we approach social media.

“We don’t need more stuff, we need more humanity.”

Seth Godin’s words ring true.

Big data can be great. In fact, data of any sort can be important. Automation can also be great. But we can’t forget about the humanity. Those things will only work well in tandem with humanity. The human element is what makes social media social. If we begin to rely TOO heavily on data and automation, we run the risk of losing the human side. Big data has its own set of potential problems.

Remove the human element at your own risk. To paraphrase Mark Ramsey’s post on radio:

Great marketing is heavy on humanity.

Great business is heavy on humanity.

It is scalable. It can work.

Use data. Use automation. But by all means, go heavy on humanity.

How are you combining data and automation with a large dose of humanity?




I agree with your assessment about being heavy on humanity. Of course, my company is in the business of leveraging big data and doing social monitoring with Pulse Analytics. Rather than using big data as a replacement for humanity...thinking they are mutually exclusive...I think it is still possible to use big data and automation to 1.) Help find the conversations, and then 2.) Engage as humans with consumers who might have even been "fishing for engagement" with the brand via those conversations.

Nothing wrong with a little targeting, and a little context, before entering into that human conversation.


Thanks for this post Ken. 

I wonder how many marketers think on this level. I certainly believe what you say is true. But a lot of the larger companies look at it from a big data perspective. They want to safeguard their brand by monitoring what's going on on-line, reaction to it, escalating issues.

More advanced is having people set-up to post engaging content on special interest networks, to get people talkin about your brand.

For this, they use lot's of software and automation. And the people behind this automation usually treat what's going on as 'tickets' they need to solve. Lot's of training and careful selection of these people is needed to do all of this right.

Thanks for the heads-up. Useful. thanks.

warm regards,

Tom De Baere

KenMueller moderator

@David Bailey Thanks, David. I think marketing should be and can be heavy on humanity, but isn't always. Sometimes we like to suck the life out of things just because we can, and because we think it will help us. Checking out that article now.


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