Taming Big Data: Start by Asking What Customers Need

By Stephen Dupont, vice president, Pocket Hercules

A phrase that returns about 70,600,000 search results on Google, “big data” is very much on the minds of Corporate America. Touted as the next big thing, it’s often viewed by many business executives as the silver bullet that will deliver the edge they need to stay competitive.

Now, whether it’s selling a product, improving the customer experience, forming public policy, disrupting a killer disease or changing long-held cultural beliefs, the ability to collect big data and extract the golden nuggets that lie within the mountain of data is transforming how we communicate and market brands and causes.

And while it’s all around us, and becoming more and more a part of our daily lives with each advance in technology, as communicators and marketers, we must understand that data is just data until you humanize it by asking your stakeholders what they need. That’s what gives big data the context and value needed to add meaning to your work, and ultimately, goals.

Becoming Data Whisperers

To secure the most relevant data, you need to ask the right questions.

We sometimes forget how amazing all of this data at our fingertips really is – a few words typed into Google can deliver millions of citations from all corners of the Internet within milliseconds. That’s big data for the masses. It’s easy accessibility is its seduction. Because without learning how to ask the right questions to secure the most relevant data, it’s easy to gather lots of data, look very productive in the process, and still come up short.

Data, whether it’s big or small, gives an organization insight to change or improve a process (a product or service) that will result in a better outcome for the organization and for those whom it serves (its stakeholders). Small data — for example, a conversation with a customer about why he or she likes your brand — can yield valuable insight. A follow-up, national online survey of thousands of customers can help us understand if that one customer’s perspectives are shared by just a few or by tens of thousands.

The difference between the casual conversation with the customer and the decision to survey thousands of customers isn’t the data collected, but the intention. A conversation with a stakeholder (customer, investor, employee, regulator) may offer incredible insights, but when we apply a scientific process or intent to gathering that information, we enter the realm of Big Data. Similarly, your organization could invest in a national consumer poll to gather facts to support an upcoming product launch, but if it’s done within the vacuum of information for information’s sake, and not within the context of the organization’s or the brand’s long-term business objectives, than that big data may be pointless.

Applying an intentional process to data collection (mining) and analysis is what transforms lots of data into smart data. Too often, organizations collect so much data that the people put in charge of deciphering it can become overwhelmed. And that’s where the process breaks down – data is ignored in favor of the familiar. But, if we apply a process similar to conducting an experiment (testing a hypothesis) to our data, we’ll start to gain insights into the data – its quality, usefulness and ultimately, value.

At the core of approaching data like a lab experiment is this: for data to be useful to us in communicating or marketing, we must be able to humanize that data. As Richard German, a talent specialist with Kforce Inc. noted in his recent LinkedIn article, “Is Big Data Dead? The Rise of Smart Data,” “Instead of just looking at the numbers and making wild guesses about why something works or doesn’t, people who work with data have to humanize it and essentially become data whisperers.”

In other words, from the beginning of the process of collecting, storing, analyzing and interpreting data, have we thought through how our data will further the narrative of our ongoing conversation with our stakeholders?

Using Data to Measure and Forecast

According to Randy Paffenroth, visiting associate professor in Data Science and Mathematical Sciences at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, located in Worcester, Mass., the key is not the data itself, but what we, as humans, do with the data once we have it.

Paffenroth says it’s critical for those of us who work with Big Data to put it into the following context: “Data is just data. Historically, it was like a lump of coal that’s used to heat a room. When you have trainloads of that coal (data) entering your business, you start to think of it much differently. Understanding what we do with that data gives it meaning. Data can be used to measure something. Data can be used to offer recommendations (I’m buying this book because thousands of others are buying it, too, so it must be good.). And data can be used to forecast future events.

“The leap that our society has taken in processing data is allowing us to ask and answer questions we never thought possible,” Paffenroth adds. “And for many organizations, what they really want to know is: ‘Can we do a better job of predicting behavior with our data?’”

Imagine predicting the next hot-selling product, or when and where the next Ebola-type epidemic may start. Imagine using demographic and population trends to determine the need for new schools and roads, or using data to reduce fuel use.

“The cost savings or potential earnings could be potentially enormous for an organization that is able to interpret information that occurred in the past into predictive models,” noted Nick Coult, Vice President, Interactive Intelligence Systems at Numerica Corporation, an information sciences company based in Fort Collins, Colo. “For example, companies rely on big data to build predictive weather forecasts. Accurately forecasting the weather can have a huge impact on our lives, from farming to snow shovel sales, to warning people about dangerous weather.”

Coult noted the use of predictive modeling by media companies such as Amazon and Netflix. Based on the purchase behavior of consumers, Amazon can identify potentially new market niches before most consumers are even aware of such a trend. Similarly, Netflix started to create its own programs because it has the data, based on purchase behavior, of the types of characters that people want to see.

However, there’s a dark side to predictive modeling. Imagine, Coult said, organizations using data to identify characteristics in a person’s resume that indicate higher levels of performance and ultimately success. With the ability to crunch through thousands or millions of resumes on a global scale to identify “the best of the best,” this big data process could reduce the opportunity of many people in finding employment – without their knowing why, or the opportunity to showcase other aspects that might make them an excellent employee. Take this a bit further…imagine prosecutors using a big data digital scoring system to determine whom to prosecute, or credit collection agencies scoring people with past-due debt on who is most likely to pay.

Fulfilling Information Needs First

To make big data work better for your communications and marketing efforts, where should you begin?

Chas Porter, marketing, creative and innovation leader with Future + Now, a Minneapolis digital marketing firm, says the answer starts with the question — the words and phrases people type into their laptop, desktop, or mobile device when they go to Google, Bing, Yahoo or another search engine.

“We believe that search patterns are the best indicator of purchase,” said Porter. “If you can understand how consumers are searching, and how your competitors are answering or not answering, you can pinpoint demand for information that is going unfulfilled.”

In other words, says Porter, people leave these digital breadcrumb-like trails about their unfulfilled needs by what they’re looking for on the Internet. Organizations that can fulfill those information needs will likely be fulfilling the customer’s needs with a sale of their product or service.

“The biggest mistake that communications and marketing professionals are making is approaching the situation from the perspective of ‘we have products to sell,’” said Porter. “Instead, flip that idea on its head – find the demand that no one is meeting by identifying the questions that no one is answering yet, or answering well.”

Similarly, from a public relations standpoint, have you ever observed the inquiries on ProfNet or HARO? If you watch closely, you’ll recognize patterns in what reporters are seeking in terms of story anglers and experts. Because the media feeds upon itself, if you can spot a trend early enough based on these inquiries, you can position your organization or expert ahead of the wave of inquiries that typically occurs with the development of most story trends (think of it in terms of a bell curve).

The opportunity for an organization is not just to be the source of information to fulfill a consumer’s information needs, but to be the answer. The creativity lies in building a narrative between your organization and the consumer.

“Data is just data until you humanize it. It’s not just about asking the right questions, it’s about asking people (your customers) what really matters to them, and why. It’s about finding the human stories within the data.”

What should you do to incorporate the power of big data into your organization’s communications or marketing programs? Here are three additional tips to consider:

  • Tap the data within. Many companies are sitting on top of a goldmine of data. It’s up to you, the communications or marketing professional, to use your creativity to ask if that data exists, or if there’s a system in place that allows you to ask stakeholders for the information you seek. For example, if you’re wondering where to target paid or earned media, is Sales or Customer Service asking your existing customers which media outlets they go to for news and information? Or, how your customers learned about your brand? And that’s just the start of better understanding how various stakeholder groups interact with your organization’s products or services.
  • Explore shared experiences. What is the essence of the brand experience? When a stakeholder is not just satisfied, but awed by the brand experience that he or she has received from your organization, they’re compelled to share it through social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, online forums and Recommend platforms (Amazon, Yelp, etc.). Monitor social media trending to watch for patterns of shared experiences that your organization could potentially accelerate further through communications with your core fans.
  • Look for the human stories within the data. Sales data, Net Promoter scores, reputation scorecards, customer satisfaction surveys, web traffic analytics, and social media trends can offer up lots of numbers, but what they lack is the human element that’s critical to building an emotional argument as to why your brand should matter to a potential customer, or to other stakeholders. Budget for opportunities to speak with, and meet, face-to-face, stakeholders to understand, from a human perspective, the “Whys” behind the data you’ve unlocked from the company’s IT systems.

Today, there’s no reason that any communications or marketing professional shouldn’t be incorporating big data into their communications and marketing strategies.

As our society races toward wearable technology, artificial intelligence, robotics and other advancements — all offering the potential of delivering more data — the continuous challenge will be in seeking data that is not only smart and valued, but is connected to the human experience: anticipating and fulfilling unmet needs and wants.

Stephen Dupont, APR, is VP of Public Relations and Branded Content for Pocket Hercules (www.pockethercules.com), a brand marketing firm based in Minneapolis. Contact Stephen Dupont at www.linkedin.com/in/stephendupont or stephendupont.co.

(Note: A version of this article appears in the Winter 2014 issue of The Strategist, published by the Public Relations Society of America).

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