Obama CTO says ‘Big Data is BS’ in keynote to hoteliers and vendors at HEDNA 2018

As far as setting the tone for HEDNA’s conference in Austin, TX, Harper Reed offered quite the frame for attendees. Reed is a man of many talents, having moved from founding revolutionary online t-shirt maker Threadless to running Obama’s data-driven fundraising machine as Chief Technology Officer and then to a startup that eventually sold to PayPal. Today, Reed is the Head of Commerce at Paypal’s Braintree Payments.

While this might seem like an odd placement for someone with Reed’s background, it made perfect sense when considering how hotels must compete on the technology front in today’s complex environment. With more channels than ever, and technology reaching across every interaction in a hotel’s operation, there’s a need for hoteliers to understand how data, technology, and the guest experience intersect.

Oh, and Reed is a fantastic presenter. By using humor and his own experience to illustrate his points, Reed certainly makes an impression. Here are some key points, with the full keynote captured live following below.

#1: Stop asking if you’re sure. Harper says that the Obama campaign saw millions of dollars in life when the campaign implemented a “quick donate” button that had no ‘are you sure’ confirmation screen. Perhaps hotels should do the same?

#2: Big Data is BS. We’ve all passed the point of Big Data saturation. But it’s really not about the size of the data, it’s what you do with it. It’s just data — and if brands collect it without doing anything with it, then it simply doesn’t matter.

#3: It’s about Big Answers.  Folllowing on from the Big Data thread, Harper reminds us all that it’s about taking that data and finding answers to the important questions. The data is a means to an end, and not the end itself. It’s something that is often forgotten, especially as the Big Data buzzword took over boardrooms.

#4: If there’s no metric, it doesn’t exist. This was a maxim passed on by Harper Reed’s boss. The premise is straightforward: if there isn’t any data behind it, you can just walk away. There is no point in having a conversation. We have other things to do!

#5: What does conversion mean for your product? If you don’t have an idea, it’s very hard to have a solid use of data to back that up. Start with understanding the outcome you want, and then work backward to capture the right kind of data to help you achieve those goals.

#6: Track ENOUGH data. If you track too much data, you risk two things: not knowing where to begin or what to do with it, and ending up being really creepy. Harper used the Target example of the father wondering why his daughter was getting mailers for pregnant mom items. There’s no need to go overboard, and there’s no need to capture the noise. Hone in on the signal.

Watch the full keynote:

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Nick Vivion

About the Writer :: Nick Vivion

Nick helps brands blog better at Ghost Works, a boutique blog management service. Nick was previously the Director of Content for tnooz, where he oversaw the editorial and commercial content as well as producing/hosting tnoozLIVE.



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  1. Yannis Moati

    super refreshing & enlightening comments from Harper. Enjoyed the video!

  2. Henry Harteveldt

    I first said “big data is BS” at an airline industry conference more than five years ago, and I know I shared that same observation in a previous HEDNA speech. Mr. Reed’s sentiment, though correct, is not exactly new news.

    • Nick Vivion

      Nick Vivion

      Hi Henry, thanks for the comment! ‘Big Data is BS’ is one of those things that needs to be revisited as a foundational understanding of what data is, and how to use it. I see this less as “news” and more like a reminder of certain principles that might be overlooked over time. The keynote was powerful and worthy of the time. Plenty of information helpful to us all!

    • Vijay

      Unfortunately you were not Obama CTO.
      Grabs attention !


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