I’m not sure when it began, but it seems that “Big Data” is becoming THE catch phrase in every business meeting. The emphasis of each Big Data conversation may be different: it may be making sure no data is lost, or the privacy and security concerns of using the cloud, or the automation of analytical reporting. But everybody seems to acknowledge that the era of Big Data is upon us.
So, what is Big Data? And why should we care?
In a nutshell, Big Data involves capturing, integrating, organizing, analyzing and acting on as much information as possible. It provides the foundation for descriptive information via monitoring and reporting and it enables predictive analysis using statistical tools.
To get a quick understanding, we don’t have to go any further than looking our daily life.
Simply put, Data is the information all around us. We check our smartphones for news and social updates, we read and write emails, we buy products from online stores, we research good restaurants for dinner, we track our health and diet, we search for random tidbits online. The list is infinitely long, but you get my point: we are consuming information all the time, and in the process, also transmitting information about ourselves. It has never been easier to access information (thanks to the Internet), and to create information whether we intend to or not (thanks to, again, Internet).
So what about the Big part?
What makes it Big as opposed to Wide or Robust or Infinite? Well, this is a little more complex…but we will start with the “Four V’s”: Volume, Velocity, Variety, and Veracity.
Information is exploding. Our poor brain is simply not trained to comprehend the extremely large Volume of data, the extremely high Velocity of data generation, the extremely wide Variety of data, and, to add salt to wound, the extremely uncertain Veracity of data we obtain.
Google is estimated to be storing 15,000 Petabytes of data, and processing 100 Petabytes more every day. That’s 15,000,000,000,000 Gigabytes in Volume, and 100,000,000,000 Gigabytes per day in Velocity. To put it in perspective, the largest storage option on an iPhone is 128 Gigabytes.
Variety is easy to understand, because you can pretty much “Google” everything. As for Veracity, just do a quick search for “is coffee good for you”, read all the opinions of self-proclaimed experts, and enjoy the confusion. It is hopeless to try to make sense of everything all by ourselves, and that’s why we rely on services and apps to create order out of chaos.
How is Big Data affecting (PR) business as usual?
PR, perhaps more than any other industry, needs to embrace Big Data wholeheartedly in order to defend its place as a key business driver. Because information (aka data) is at the core of any good PR strategy or campaign, PR pros are generally experts in monitoring and influencing public opinion. But the job is getting harder every day. We can no longer hope to assess public opinion in the traditional way because everybody has at least fifty things to say and they are posting all of them online. And whether we want to accept it or not, this swath of information affects audiences’ perception about a company in addition to buying decisions.
There is also no guarantee that a carefully crafted magazine article will be more impactful than a random customer’s tweet gone viral. PR pros not equipped with Big Data are asked to manage the relationship with a fast changing public, but the traditional way of processing information is failing them.
And they are not alone in facing the Big Data challenge. Everybody is struggling. There is an unfortunate gap between amazing technological innovation and everyday usage by us mere mortals. Tech insiders tend to throw out jargon like “distributed database”, “neural network” and “object oriented programing”, but all the jargon in the world won’t answer the question “which channel is the best to reach the broadest audience about a specific branding message?”
But why should PR pros embrace Big Data? Well, there are plenty of reasons but let’s start here:
#1 – Building a quantitative foundation
Big Data can help PR, a primarily qualitative industry, to lay a quantitative foundation. In other words: it empowers PR pros to make more informed decisions about what’s working, what’s not working, and ultimately shows how PR is connected to business goals.
We can now utilize devices to monitor the Internet and capture every single piece of content published online. While at first glance, it seems like a humongous, messy pile, we can also be confident that we are collecting more than doing it by hand. Then, we can filter data by the topics we are interested in. Services such as Google Analytics and Omniture help us track how many people read each piece; then solutions like ours (AirPR Analyst) tell who are the most influential authors in a particular field, or what messages are resonating during a particular time frame. Imagine a world in which you use data to enhance storytelling, hence reaching more relevant audiences; in turn, this will get you closer to reaching your business goals.
#2 – Connecting to your audience
Big Data provides a detailed picture of the audience. Everyone who engages in online activity leaves a digital footprint. We can look at the collection of footprints to find out what our target audience likes or doesn’t like. Fortunately, the marketing industry has already made significant progress in this field, and PR (aka PRTech) can build on this technology.
There is also a surprising amount of insight that can be culled from taking a closer look at existing customers’ info. Imagine how easy it would be to choose your angle of messaging when you know your most valuable customers are senior business people in the Pacific Northwest who tend to listen to public radio on their way into work.
#3 – Estimating the actual versus perceived impact
Big Data helps to estimate the impact of actions. Correlation between an action and an outcome can be calculated when enough data is collected. This is where we actually like the BIG part of Big Data. Basic statistics principles tell us the more data we collect, the more accurate our estimation. And the more variety we have in our data collection, the more aspects we can use to measure the impact.
Gone are the days when number of placements is the only thing PR pros can confidently quantify regarding their contribution. If Big Data analysis tells you that 5% of this quarter’s revenue growth can be attributed to a series of PR efforts you partnered with a specific publication, yet it could have been 6% had you chosen another partner, everybody will be more excited about next quarter.
Big Data and its role in the future of PR
Of course, Big Data is no crystal ball. It uses historical data to provide you with useful information. The underlying assumption is the world will pretty much behave the same in the near future. It is a quite reasonable assumption, but not always correct (think housing prices in 2008). Big Data gives the best quantification of all the ingredients; the art is how to use the newfound knowledge to create the tastiest and healthiest meal. This is where the real genius in every PR pro shines.
Obviously, the prediction won’t be 100% accurate, but it will systematically provide you a competitive information edge because you can see one step further. Furthermore, once you see the analysis (results), you can plan and optimize your efforts to take the best actions and maximize the benefit.
Yes, we can finally put a number behind our gut feelings!