Many businesses don’t yet know the answer to that question. But going forward, companies will need to develop greater expertise at valuing their data assets.

In 2016, Microsoft Corp. acquired the online professional network LinkedIn Corp. for $26.2 billion. Why did Microsoft consider LinkedIn to be so valuable? And how much of the price paid was for LinkedIn’s user data — as opposed to its other assets? Globally, LinkedIn had 433 million registered users and approximately 100 million active users per month prior to the acquisition. Simple arithmetic tells us that Microsoft paid about $260 per monthly active user.

Did Microsoft pay a reasonable price for the LinkedIn user data? Microsoft must have thought so — and LinkedIn agreed. But the deal generated scrutiny from the rating agency Moody’s Investors Service Inc., which conducted a review of Microsoft’s credit rating after the deal was announced. What can be learned from the Microsoft–LinkedIn transaction about the valuation of user data? How can we determine if Microsoft — or any acquirer — paid a reasonable price?

The answers to these questions are not clear. But the subject is growing increasingly relevant as companies collect and analyze ever more data. Indeed, the multibillion-dollar deal between Microsoft and LinkedIn is just one recent example of data valuation coming to the fore. Another example occurred during the Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings of Caesars Entertainment Operating Corp. Inc., a subsidiary of the casino gaming company Caesars Entertainment Corp. One area of conflict was the data in Caesars’ Total Rewards customer loyalty program; some creditors argued that the Total Rewards program data was worth $1 billion, making it, according to a Wall Street Journal article, “the most valuable asset in the bitter bankruptcy feud at Caesars Entertainment Corp.” A 2016 report by a bankruptcy court examiner on the case noted instances where sold-off Caesars properties — having lost access to the customer analytics in the Total Rewards database — suffered a decline in earnings. But the report also observed that it might be difficult to sell the Total Rewards system to incorporate it into another company’s loyalty program. Although the Total Rewards system was Caesars’ most valuable asset, its value to an outside party was an open question.

As these examples illustrate, there is no formula for placing a precise price tag on data. But in both of these cases, there were parties who believed the data to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Acknowledgments

The authors wish to acknowledge financial and research support from Dell EMC, Intel Corp., and Seagate Technology Inc. for this study; in addition, Cisco Systems Inc., IBM Corp., and NetApp Inc. provided financial and research support for earlier stages of the research. Several individuals made important contributions: Barry Rudolph of VelociData Inc., Douglas Laney at Gartner Inc., Barbara Latulippe and Bill Schmarzo at Dell EMC, and Terry Yoshii at Intel Corp.