As many of you know, I’ve been studying Big Data and how PR and communications people are (or are not) using it.Today, it seems, the most common way we are using it is to spot trends in social media so we can react to them. While this is useful, I don’t believe it to be what is most important about Big Data for communications.
However, I find many folks are confused about what, exactly, Big Data is.
What Is Big Data?
According to Wikipedia:
Big data is an all-encompassing term for any collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using on-hand data management tools or traditional data processing applications.
While that definition is good, it is not particularly useful for communications people. Assuming the work of communicators is to persuade and manage relationships with stakeholders, I think it’s more useful to think of Big Data as burgeoning amounts of data on stakeholder behavior.
Now I will paraphrase Wikipedia:
People and organizations are creating and using these larger data sets, because they can derive new and useful insights by combining a number of individual smaller data sets into one large data set. This allows users to apply statistical and other search tools to the combined database to “spot business trends, prevent diseases, combat crime and so on.”
Where Is Big Data Coming From?
The individual data bases that are being combined into Big-Data type databases are coming from a number of places. Here are some of them:
Traditional sources, such as:
· Government data (e.g. broad demographics, voting records)
· Product warranty forms (e.g. names, addresses)
Newer sources, such as:
· Retail store loyalty cards (e.g. purchase history, household demographics, total spending, seasonal spending, media purchases)
· Credit cards (e.g. purchase history, household demographics)
· Health care records (e.g. ailments, prescription history, treatment history)
Online sources, such as:
· Internet activity (e.g. browsing history [favorite sites and media], purchases, sites from which purchases are made)
· Facebook (e.g. comments, likes, timelines)
· Smart phones (e.g. shopping, travel patterns, localities)
· Cars (e.g. travel patterns)
· Smart houses (e.g. when you’re home, household appliances you have)
· Personal health monitoring (e.g. exercise habits, factors suggesting overall health)
· Records of personal interactions (such as a conversation at your door with a political representative. While this kind of interaction would be considered traditional, recording notes from the conversation and putting them into a database is new)
There are undoubtedly many more sources of data and kinds of information that can be drawn from the sources above that I do not know about.
Why Does Big Data Matter To PR and Communications
As a consumer this is all a bit scary. But, from a communications perspective, it hints at the extraordinary power Big Data can have in helping organizations determine:
· What products and services to bring to customers and clients
· What to say about these products and services to encourage people to try them
· How to fine tune the selection of media to reach potential users with pinpoint accuracy
While these questions are oriented toward sales and marketing, Big Data can be used to address similar policy and operations questions for shareholders, employees, communities and other stakeholders.
When we consider customers alone, it is quite clear the insights Big Data can provide can be critical to successful communications. However, when we add in the total mix of stakeholders and the importance of balancing the wants and needs of each in order to ensure the organization succeeds in the long run, Big Data becomes an even more important source of potential insight for policy and communications. Those organizations that understand Big Data and how to use it are consistently demonstrating they have a competitive advantage over those that do not. (According to a 2013 Bain & Company report, companies “with the most advanced analytics capabilities are outperforming competitors by wide margins.”)
I expect that communicators who understand Big Data and how to use it will have a similar competitive advantage, especially in those organizations already using Big Data in their business operations.