10/03/2012 05:44 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2012

Is It Cold in Your Stadium? Mine's Warm and Toasty

Don't let an avalanche of data put a chill on your game, get refined, data-fueled comfort instead.

It was a Monday Night Football game in 2008, the coldest game ever played at Soldier Field -- my stadium -- and there were slim playoff implications for the Bears as they faced the Packers. The mercury was at 0 degrees, but what was a little cold to the Packers? They led most of the game and had a chance to win in the final seconds, but we blocked their field goal and won in overtime, 20-17. It was incredible, and not a single Bears fan ever felt the cold, we were all too "heated up" by one exciting play after another, hundreds of sensory inputs and a flood of adrenaline. Data can be like that, if you manage it appropriately.

The Internet is an amazing source of data, or heat. Consumers search for your product, "like" or talk about it; if you're lucky, they bookmark it, pin it, or give it good reviews. They navigate the web, and where permissibility and privacy allow, reveal clues to interest and intent. All in, there is an enormous avalanche of consumer behavior on the Internet but you don't have to be frozen by it.

To date, most organizations use this "outside" data too narrowly, just for digital advertising. What a missed opportunity to turn up the heat. The consequences of a display ad gone wrong are inconsequential -- it was cheap to buy and will be cheap to correct. But using this "outside" data "in" your organization is another matter. For example, if digital data reveals that intent is geographically concentrated, wouldn't you also adjust your circular or local advertising? If digital data reveals that a particular classification of customers' behavior is changing, wouldn't you adjust your CRM programs? And, if digital data reveals a virally popular theme, wouldn't you adjust your TV messaging and capitalize on it?

Of course, the answers to these questions are obvious, but actually answering them requires a strategic commitment to view customer data as an enterprise asset. That, in turn, requires a system and process to activate, evaluate and apply this "outside" intelligence across all media, not just digital media.

Over the years, marketers have relied on many tools to understand customers: primary research; purchase and response data; loyalty systems; customer data warehouses; customer personas; and optimal messaging for the right product at the right time. A major brand might invest several hundred million dollars in customer insight.

The intersection of insights responsibly leverages what a brand knows about customers with what its media partners know about context. Increasingly, smart marketers will insist on a blind match of their customer data with partner contextual data to better target and measure advertising of all kinds. In digital advertising, it means matching a destination site's registration list against a brand's customer file. For television, it means matching set-top box data (from tens of millions of households, not the typical 25,000 employed by the major TV viewership system) against the customer file.

This won't happen without advertiser leadership. Many publishers and agency incentive systems are predicated on volume. But like field goal attempts, most marketers don't need more advertising; they need advertising better placed. Using brand customer data to drive targeting enables that better placement, but advertisers need to insist on this practice and enforce it with incentives. In the world of big data, it's better data that's required... and that's the intersection of insights.

The intersection of insights has important privacy and data rights considerations, as well.

Performing a blind match across customer and contextual insight requires a "safe haven," an intermediary for both advertiser and publisher. While clearly this requires attention to agreements and the involvement of many players, it's worth it. For example, one of our major clients examined a full year's worth of TV ad spend, which totaled $31 million, and found it could have achieved the same results for $9 million by using its customer data to align its media plan more insightfully. A major financial institution used a similar approach for digital advertising to increase approved applications four fold.

Don't be caught out in the cold by a blizzard of data; use it to heat up your long-term success and relevance to your customers. Of course, in all honesty, we Chicagoans do get things a little mixed up when it comes to sports and weather. In Soldier Field -- yes, my stadium -- in the summer of 1954 -- yes, in the summer -- we had a Nordic ski jump competition with a full size ramp and landing area covered in shaved ice. Must have been some data somewhere that indicated that it was a good idea.

Tim Suther is chief marketing officer and senior VP of Acxiom, a technology and marketing-services company that helps companies personalize the consumer experience, manage audiences and create customer relationships.