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Insights into “Big Data” - Experts Seek to Demystify and Offer Tips and Tricks During NCC Program

May 1, 2013

The process of understanding, collecting and interpreting data rapidly has become one the most pressing topics impacting communications professionals. On April 29, the National Capital Chapter of PRSA hosted a panel of experts at the Navy Memorial to discuss a variety of issues related to “big data” in particular, also seeking to demystify its nebulous, buzzword-esque nature.

The session was moderated by Dan Horowitz, executive vice president and senior partner of the digital practice at FleishmanHillard DC, and attracted roughly 50 attendees. The panelists included:

  • Mark Blumenthalsenior polling editor, Huffington Post, and founding editor of
  • Daniel Davidsonvice president of analytics and insights, FleishmanHillard
  • Alex Lundryvice president and director of research, TargetPoint Consulting
  • Christopher Coxdirector of client strategy & insight, Resonate Networks

Defining “Big Data” 

Horowitz opened the discussion by inviting panelists to tackle the question, “What exactly is big data?” “It is primarily defined by volume, variety and velocity,” Cox stated, speaking from his microtargeting background within digital advertising. The other panelists chuckled in agreement when Lundry added “it’s the moment you can’t open up your data set in Excel.” It used to be you only had access to the data you could personally gather. The ability to draw data from disparate sources is one of the most significant developments in the evolution of data collection.

How has this much data become available? Blumenthal pointed to the immense strides in computing power in the past decade which is now cheaper, more interconnected and higher in storage capacity than ever before. The challenge and opportunity for communication professionals, Davidson highlighted, is layering different types of data for a more comprehensive analysis.

Applications for Communicators

Social listening proved to be a common theme throughout the discussion. This practice of monitoring involves tracking a discussion topic to determine audience perceptions. Lundry described how he and his colleagues at Romney for President sought to establish key phrases in TV campaign ads they knew would be discussed. “We would see the same pattern – after two days of the ad airing, volume and sentiment would spike on social media. After four days, national news media would spike. Two days after that we would see corresponding movement in the ballot.” Holding a bright shiny object in the air and saying “look at this” is a way to drive the conversation rather than simply reacting to it.

Davidson added that “Marketing is characterized by the sale, for PR, it can be more complicated.” He recommended Radian 6 as an effective tool for preparing visual representations of digitized discussions. Communicators can now instantly see in real time people talking about particular movements, products or candidates. With social platforms getting more sophisticated at sentiment analysis, prediction is moving to the forefront. “Think of Try and match a press release with a person,” Laudry suggested. With more and more opportunities to segment audiences, a more scientific, predictive method is becoming the norm to communicate persuasive messages.

Big data is only getting bigger, and communications professionals are undoubtedly feeling the added pressure to stay on the cutting edge. Rather than getting caught up in the whirlwind of new tools and tech, Blumenthal concluded, “At the end of the day you need smart people with good judgment.” Even the most seasoned pollsters and analysts can tend to jump into data collection before having a plan. “Know what you want to learn first,” noted Horowitz. “You’ll go in circles if you don’t do all this before starting measurement.” The planning and strategy associated with effective public relations is only intensified when data enters into the mix.

What About Privacy?

With the increased volume, specificity and ease of access to information, the question of people’s privacy is a primary concern. As seen in Microsoft Bing’s new ad campaigns, a handful of search-related companies are seeking to tap into the public’s fear that their every move is being watched and analyzed. “There’s no bad data, there’s just bad applications,” Cox posited. “Your data is the new currency of the web-based economy and there’s giant companies who have ridden to the top on the back of free products.” He cautioned that if people choose to restrict their sharing of information, they need to understand the trade-offs – namely cheap web products or services.

Big Data Trends

In response to Horowitz’s concluding question about future trends, Lundry emphasized the seismic shifts projected to occur within the television advertising space. Viewers watching the same primetime show will be served different ads based not solely on demographics, but interests and predicted values. “We are using dynamic creative optimization at Resonate,” Cox added. “Watch GPS to serve you a more robust ad targeting based on your interests and hobbies.” Creepy? Helpful? Needless to say, advertisers are gunning for more ad personalization on every available channel.

Five Tips and Tricks You Can Do Immediately

  1. Take advantage of free tools. Google Analytics is a must. Horowitz reminded the audience to include the necessary bits of code on website pages to start measuring traffic, conversions and content performance. is useful when sharing links to track their virality. Survey Monkey can be effective for small scale surveying.
  2. Use AB testing. This is especially important for increasing the effectiveness of a CRM. One example given by Lundry is to regularly send newsletters or post tweets at two different times of day. Compare the number of clicks over time and determine the sweet spot.
  3. Always be building your list. Remember back to 2008 when the Obama Campaign was able to collect three-million mobile phone numbers by choosing to announce the vice president pick via text message. Be creative and push boundaries to build audiences for activation.
  4. Pay attention to headline writing. Blumenthal encouraged communicators to take a closer look into how Google ranks headlines. When using paid content discovery services like Outbrain, using certain words can increase click through rates by 30-40%. Don’t miss out on clicks.
  5. Become a voracious reader. Whether for personal enrichment or trying to convince a boss to invest in data measurement, these books were recommended by the experts: Moneyball (Lewis), Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-By-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart (Ayers) and The Victory Lab (Issenberg).

​This article, written by Brian Hrubik, a digital communications intern at Fleishman-Hillard's Washington, DC office, first appeared on the CapitolCommunicator website. Click here to see the original. You can reach Brian on Twitter @brianhrubik.

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