Industry chatter has recently centered on “the consumer journey” – the various stages on the path a person follows from browser to buyer. There are several forms that journey is believed to take, from funnel to loop; however, the more important factor is what that path is paved with – data.

Data is the core thread that connects the consumer journey to audience and eventually paying customer. Consumers are defined as the broad market of potential buyers that brands want to understand to better inform marketing strategy. Audiences are those consumers that will be targeted through media efforts – this is the focus of a majority of ad-tech today. Customers are those audiences that have converted over to become known paying buyers. Data is the core thread that a marketer must utilize to tie together the entire journey from consumer to customer.

Marketers of the past operated with much less information available to them than we have today, and their target audiences, as well as the impact of their efforts, were largely unknown. Data has been the defining factor in turning those unknowns into actionable insights that make marketing more efficient and effective, and there is a wealth of it at our fingertips.

To break it down to basics, consider the CMO of a major luxury car brand. In order to maximize the brand’s revenue potential, that CMO must know who the potential customers are, and what those people need to incentivize them to buy one brand over another. He is responsible for the clear messaging on all of his brand’s marketing channels – website, social media, via display and search ads, email marketing and mobile applications.

So the CMO turns to market research to understand consumer demographics, interests, and purchase propensities. He discovers that a significant percentage of people who have previously purchased his vehicle brand are married women with two children or less with an overall household income of $250,000 or higher. Helpful information to know when it comes to campaign creative, but he must continue to build on that insight in order to find out where those consumers live online, and how best to reach out to them.

Audience insights can assist in determining what digital media is most associated with the target. Which news sites and blogs do they read? How likely are they to make online purchases?  But that data only goes so far. To really encourage consumers down the path to purchase, this CMO needs to plumb the depths of data for more insight.

Of his pool of potential audiences, which ones have exhibited behaviors indicating that they are in the market for a new car? Which have exhibited interest in his particular brand? And which have further exhibited that they intend to purchase a luxury vehicle within the next two weeks?

Still, to maximize effectiveness and minimize waste, he must go further. What particular features have they been researching? What competitive brands have they researched? What images, colors, phrases have they responded to? All of this insight informs the look and feel, the tone and content of the advertising message; when, how and where it is delivered; and what steps are taken to follow up?

Traditional market research simply can’t provide the real-time insight and response that marketers need to turn audiences into buyers. What we think of as “big data” is a massive cache of information gleaned from sources such as online behaviors, social media and demographics, not to mention campaign data such as impressions, clicks, click through rates, views, view throughs, downloads, tags, follows, likes, etc. As you might imagine, parsing that information in real time and reacting to that insight in a timely fashion is a herculean task.

Sophisticated analytics and technologies such as programmatic buying platforms can help brands harness big data and turn around relevant messaging targeted by purchase intent while that intent is still fresh. They enable brands to identify, segment and engage audiences at every stage of the customer journey, and significantly improve the odds that more people reach the end of that journey and make a purchase.

According to Gartner, big data investments in 2013 continue to rise, with 64 percent of organizations investing or planning to invest in big data technology compared with 58 percent in 2012

So by partnering with a data analytics company, our luxury auto brand CMO can zero in on not just consumers who are likely to be interested in his brand, but audiences who are ready to be targeted as buyers and who just need the right message or incentive to take the next step on the customer journey. He can use his newfound insight to find those married mothers of two online, to engage them during the consideration phase with popular features and colors, to reach back out with the child safety message he knows is most important to them, to sweeten the pitch with a Zero Interest financing offer and to seal the deal with a personal invite to test drive at her local dealer.

Market research is still an extremely valuable business tool; after all, the best way to know where we’re going is to know where we’ve been. However, in today’s world of shorter attention spans and instant gratification, marketers have to strike while the iron is hot, and do so armed with the audience insight necessary to make that message count. It’s time for brands to stop being wary of big data, and open the door to some of the new data players that can bridge the gap between information and insight, and do it fast.

At the end of the day, those marketers that can fully utilize data to bridge the gap from consumer to targeted audience to paying customer will gain a material competitive advantage. Data truly is the thread that connects the full marketing journey.