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.


What Big Data Is (From a PR and Communications Perspective) and Why It Matters — 4 Comments

  1. Forrest, this is a very well written article that points up the importance of Big Data for communicators who want a seat at the business leadership / strategy table. The apps and tools that store and distribute the data are one piece of it. More important are the human heads who understand how to interpret the information and use it to strategize in support of a business’ success.

  2. Hi Sue.

    Thanks for your great comment, and I couldn’t agree more.

    While Big Data is an extraordinary resource, it’s how managers use the information that will make a difference to how well organizations succeed. While people who want to gain and use insights from Big Data don’t necessarily have to be data scientists themselves, they do need to know enough to ask questions that can be reasonably answered by the data and help the organization and its communications. This means having a basic understanding of Big Data.

    Florian Zettlemeyer, the Big Data Guru at the Kellogg School of Management suggests taking a data scientist to lunch. I think that’s good advice. But the basic thing PR people need to be doing is asking what Big Data can provide that can help their organizations achieve business (and supporting communications) goals. Then they need to get that information and use it.

  3. Forrest, thanks for posting this. It’s such an important topic in our industry right now. Communicators are, for the most part, just beginning to get their hands and heads around the use of data in marketing and PR.

    Up until recently on the PR side, data has been very esoteric – using possibilities (impressions, circulation, AVE) instead of actual outcomes to gather information and align it with success. We’re at a precipice in our industry – and the use of data is crucial to formulate truly strategic campaigns. We can now go beyond “experience hunches” and use data to repeat what’s working and pivot from what isn’t.

    It’s surprising that so many PR executives have not yet embraced real data points to measure success, evaluate ROI and predictively plan. Hopefully, as folks like you continue to help educate and guide them, data will be at the forefront of every PR campaign by the end of 2015.

    At SeeDepth, we’re trying to help move that goal along as well, by making access to measurement data automatic, instant, and easy with our PR analytics platform. But Susan is right, the tools alone are not enough – PR practitioners must spend time with the data to analyze, draw correlations and interpret the information for future strategies.

    Christine Perkett

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