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Big Data, applied to marketing, is transforming how marketers in myriad industries attempt to reach consumers. Armed with the ability to distill insight from large data sets, marketers can improve their programs by better understanding the precise needs and behaviors of their target audiences.

But achieving meaningful returns from Big Data investments can be an elusive goal. Although marketers know they need to glean actionable insights from unstructured data, the process can be time-consuming, expensive, and difficult to quantify in terms of financial benefits for the organization.

As marketers face increasing pressure to demonstrate the impact of every dollar of marketing spend, decision-makers need to be able to establish the return on investment (ROI) for Big Data. Otherwise, justifying Big Data's role as a key driver of business goals may be difficult.

As a marketer, you have to be able to connect Big Data investments with quantifiable business outcomes and tie the impact of Big Data efforts to specific marketing strategies.

Although Big Data has many possible applications in your company's marketing strategy, here are five of the best ways to increase the ROI you achieve on your Big Data expenditures.

1. Have a goal

Measurable ROI for Big Data begins with defined goals and desired outcomes. From the beginning of the process, you must understand why you need the data and how it will be used after it has been collected: How will the data influence marketing campaigns? What are the specific customer insights you hope to learn from the data?

Without clear answers to those and other questions, you will inevitably spend time and energy on data that produces no results and no ROI for your company.

2. Think predictive

Big Data is most effective when combined with analytics to predict consumer behaviors. By gathering knowledge about when customers make purchase decisions, marketing products or services to customers when they want or need them becomes easier.

For example, marketers can apply analytics to Big Data to predict that most consumers who are selling their homes begin improvement projects during the third month the house has been on the market. Paint companies can then market to these consumers during month three—not during month one—to achieve maximum ROI.

3. Identify lucrative life events

Another way Big Data can be used to accomplish measurable business outcomes is via the collection of data related to major life events. College graduations, marriages, home purchases, selling a home, and other life events provide occasions for marketers to present consumers with relevant buying opportunities.

But to improve ROI, marketers need to understand which life events are important to their target markets, and then create marketing strategies capable of connecting with those consumers during the life events identified by Big Data analysis.

Also, the window of opportunity for reaching consumers during such events is small, so you need to move quickly to reach these audiences at a time when brand loyalties are weakest.

4. Be timely

Timing is everything if you are to receive bottom-line value from Big Data. In many cases, outcomes are sabotaged not by the quality of the data but by marketers' inability to use the data for the timely distribution of key offers and messages.

Using insights gleaned from Big Data analysis, you have the ability to conduct targeted direct mail or email campaigns that push the right messages to consumers at the right times. Likewise, you can use Big Data insights to time the delivery of coupons and special offers designed to encourage consumers to use your product at the appropriate times.

5. Use real-time access

Historical data analysis is critical in predicting patterns and trends in the marketplace. But to optimize Big Data outcomes, you should have real-time access to the marketplace in order to identify the behaviors and preferences consumers are expressing right now.

In addition to dramatically increasing the effectiveness of your marketing campaigns, the timely and accurate application of Big Data insights eliminates waste by reducing the amount of direct mail or other materials that are sent to the wrong people.

* * *

Nearly everyone agrees that Big Data holds limitless possibilities for companies of all shapes and sizes. But, ultimately, the real value of Big Data is determined by the contribution it makes to your company's bottom line.

By consistently and intelligently using Big Data insights to implement more-targeted marketing strategies, you can improve the measurable impact of both your Big Data efforts and your marketing.

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Scott Bailey is executive vice-president of strategy and analytics of Target Data Corp., which specializes in direct mail for the moving industry. Scott is a widely published expert in marketing strategy, targeting, and segmentation.