Data in the Driver’s Seat

Taken from an interview with Stephen Messer.


Stephen Messer is co-founder and vice chairman of Collective, offering business intelligence through a software-as-a-service model. Collective’s data-driven network transforms raw data into shared strategic knowledge. He and his sister, Heidi Messer, co-founded LinkShare Corporation, host to one of the world’s largest online affiliate networks.

How will marketing evolve for small businesses in the next decade?
Marketing will be the center of innovation for small, medium, and large businesses. For the first time, marketers will control technology purchases, guide product development, and be involved in all critical functions of growing companies. Company size won't matter as much as being able to adapt to the world of the empowered consumer, and marketing is the critical link between the consumers and the businesses they choose to support.


Any company can directly appeal to large markets through channels like Twitter and Pinterest, which means that small businesses have the same access to these potential customers as large ones. Marketing and sales are at the center of this trend because they manage these channels and, in the next decade, small businesses will have an unprecedented opportunity to scale if they can identify opportunities and rapidly react.  

Companies like LinkShare and Google defined the last decade of measurement. They created a whole new tool set for marketers with new sophisticated technology to assess the performance of advertising, giving us the previously elusive answer to the question, “What happened?” The next decade will be all about figuring out why and what to do. 


I'm maniacally focused on data in my latest venture [Collective is a network built around deriving insights from big data] because I passionately believe that data science combined with creative thinking will determine whether or not companies survive. Marketing will be all about uncovering insights, layering on creativity and coordinating company-wide execution based on data analysis. Business intelligence and decision support will be essential, combined with marketing-driven execution. There will be more and more opportunities for small businesses to use data to beat large incumbents. 

What technological advances must small business be ready for?

Networks. If there is one thing I have seen again and again it is that networks always win in the digital economy. Networks will become the utilities of the internet because they have both the ability to reduce technology costs by spreading them over many players and because networks have both the economic incentive and infrastructure to rapidly innovate.


Small businesses should be prepared to plug in to a myriad of networks that provide them technology, distribution, know-how, and so on, to satisfy any function that is outside of a very small focused area of differentiation. Social (like Facebook and Pinterest), communications (like Twitter), advertising (like Google and LinkShare), CRM (like Salesforce), and data networks (like Collective) will dominate, and small businesses should be prepared to actively seek out these players to provide them with infrastructure and the ability to scale. The companies who embrace this trend will win big. Those who optimize to these networks (rather than opt out because they want control) have huge opportunities. Think about Instagram and Zynga and how they have leveraged Facebook. They both started off as small companies and leveraged themselves into online behemoths by partnering with a network.  


The alternatives to networks, standalone technology, or people, will be tempting, but both small and large businesses will have to be prepared to relinquish control and customization for innovation and speed. The time it will take to create proprietary infrastructure may be the difference between success, stagnation, or worse, obsolescence. I'm focused on growing a network around data analysis and business intelligence when it would have been easier to build a consulting or pure technology business. I opted for this route because I know that networks will be the only players who can scale faster versus any proprietary technology or armies of consultants. Networks with technology like ours are going to make it easier and continuously more affordable for even small businesses to gain deep knowledge about customers and position themselves for tremendous growth.