The Burgeoning Buzz on Big Data: What It Is and How to Use It

Today’s guest RepMan is by Peppercommer Jeffrey Cipriano.

13efab3bigdataBuzzword. It’s a term we’ve all heard before. These words are very popular for a short time, but have very little meaning – words like “synergy”, “disruptive marketing”, or “Donald Trump”.

But there is one buzzword that deserves the ubiquity, even if the meaning eludes people: “big data” (OK, make that two words). When I tell people I work with big data at Peppercomm, it inspires reverential ooooohs because it’s apparently a Very Important Job. People know big data is trendy – it is a big buzzword, after all – but they don’t know what it is.

But while big data may be hard to define, it is easy to understand – and more importantly, it may be useful for your business strategy. Simply put, big data is a term that describes very large unstructured data sets (go figure, what’s in a name and all that) from a large series of sources. It can sometimes be terabytes of data that requires open-source software and massive storage, or it can simply be large data sets from multiple different sources. In my world, these can include media monitoring tools, data from surveys, SEO, etc.

So much conversation around big data is on these data sources, as opposed to something else essential to using the data correctly: human analysis. Without that element, the data you’ve aggregated is just text and statistics without context. So, here are some quick tips for those willingly to get down with data, and to get the best out of it:

1. Know what you’re looking for. It’s like the old Scientific Method from 4th grade, where you have 2 or 3 steps before you can light things on fire: think of questions you want answered and ways that you might be able to answer them. Be careful with your process planning – many clients assume certain ideas to be facts, and this belief gets in the way of the insights that will benefit their business. My team always says that the most dangerous words at work are, “Well, we think we know…” Data can say something different than what your gut or intuition says, so it’s important to reflect on the context of your client’s question.

2. Define your search. Start with where you want to look, and always work from specific to narrow – both in the sense of your search context and what data streams you’re using. There is a lot of free data out there you can use, but just having lots of data doesn’t make it a useful resource. There are tools that can help structure your data set, and analytic skills that can help you find the exact data to answer your query, which come from working in the data and understanding it. Which brings us to…
3. Find actionable insight. Similar to how many PR pieces include a call to action, many of the insights I seek are ones that inspire some kind of response from a client. A PhD researcher from Massey University investigated this in a recent study, on how big data influences strategic decision-making. In my world, it’s not just about aggregating media mentions and showing the coverage landscape – it’s about finding opportunities to represent our client in a better light, and contextualizing positive or negative moments.
Big data is a burgeoning field, and there’s room for great innovation and application in the world of communications. But it’s important to remember that the data is only as good as the questions you ask of it, and the human analysis you put into it. Otherwise, it’s just another trendy buzzword.

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