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Meek School Students Catch the Big Data Buzz

Sean Callahan and Eric Schnabel
Sean Callahan and Eric Schnabel

This article is written by Cynthia Joyce, an assistant professor of journalism in the Meek School. The magazine is a collaborative effort of journalism and Integrated Marketing Communications students with the faculty of Meek School of Journalism and New Media. Every week, for the next few weeks, HottyToddy.com will feature an article from Meek Magazine, Issue 4 (2016-2017).


“Big Data” – It’s a buzzword as much as it is a technical term, one that — much like “multimedia” — gets tossed around frequently, despite the fact that few people agree on its precise meaning.

And yet, there’s a growing awareness that being able to harness the power of Big Data is critical to success in any modern media or marketing environment.

Last fall, the Meek School’s integrated marketing communications program director, Scott Fiene, invited representatives from two of the world’s top social media networks — Facebook and LinkedIn — to talk to students about the importance of data in the communications field today and how it’s used to build and retain customer relationship.

Speaking before a full house at the Overby Center for the first Ole Miss New Media Data Day, Sean Callahan, senior manager of content marketing at LinkedIn, and Eric Schnabel, North America director of Facebook Creative Shop, provided their perspective and insights into current trends and opportunities within the industry.

“It was quite a coup for us to have folks of that caliber here, sharing with us what exactly they do,” Fiene said. “There’s a whole side to marketing that’s all about the analytics and data. And while ours is a creative program, we no longer live in a world where you’re on one side or the other — it’s all the same side.”

Following the event, Callahan and Schnabel were interviewed via email:

How do you define Big Data, in simple terms?

SC: SC: There are many definitions of Big Data. Narrowly defined, Big Data is using powerful software to analyze — in the blink of an eye — huge sets of unstructured data, such as meteorological data, surveillance camera video, a company’s emails, or healthcare data, to name just a few examples.

I personally prefer a broader definition of Big Data. Think about the proliferation of computers today. As processing speeds have grown faster and storage costs have become lower, computers have become incredibly powerful. It’s the stuff of science fiction.

These computers, as well as the smartphones that all of us carry around in our pockets, throw off so much data that more than 90 percent of the data in existence has been created in the past two years. With that in mind, Big Data is the network of computers, mobile phones, and a host of other digital devices that create streams of data that businesses can analyze to find actionable insights. Those insights can be as simple as identifying the demographics of the people visiting your website, which can have powerful implications to a company.

ES: We don’t really use that term, but I guess I’d define it as data that allows companies and organizations to make their services or ads more personally relevant.

At Facebook, we spend a lot of time thinking about how we can use the things people like to drive the relevance of a person’s experience on our platforms.

On Facebook, if we show you more posts from people and companies you care about most, you’ll enjoy the experience more and spend more time.

People use Instagram to explore their passions. Whether you’re into SEC football or Russian architecture, the more we help you discover what you love, the more you’ll be inspired to spend more time.

For a young media professional entering the workforce today, what are some of the most exciting prospects made possible by Big Data?

SC: Big Data is changing how many occupations are done on a day-to-day basis, and the media is not escaping the impact. On one level, journalists will have access to incredible amounts of data that can help them tell stories. For instance, a financial reporter has easy access to the financial filings of the businesses they cover and can use software to analyze trends much faster than they could in the past. This kind of data analysis can lead to stories full of insights that were basically unattainable before.

On another level, journalists writing for a website will have almost instantaneous access to data on how many people are reading their stories, what characteristics define those readers, how they arrived at the story, and what actions they took because of it. Having access to this kind of information can be intimidating, but the most effective reporters will take advantage of it to understand what their readers want. At the same time, journalists have to still have an inner compass for finding a good story beyond what the visitor data tells them — otherwise they’ll be doomed to writing listicles for the rest of their professional days.

ES: People in the media-related careers have always sought to create ideas, articles and columns that attract people’s attention.

Well-considered audience data allows creators of all kinds to find huge audiences of people who care deeply about what they’re writing or filming about.

When it’s much easier to find much bigger audiences who are interested in reading the things you’re creating, you can write with much more color and specificity.

Let’s say you’re writing a story about an up-and-coming hip-hop artist in Mississippi. Once, the audience for that story might be limited to some regional print publications or blogs. At times in the past, you’d have to water down your story to make it appeal to a much larger audience.

Now you can take that same story, write it the way you like and then target it to millions of hip-hop fans regionally, across the country or around the world.

As the idea of using Big Data to drive more customer-focused, or audience-focused, efforts becomes more mainstream, are there any industries still currently untouched by Big Data?

SC: Nope. Even agriculture, the oldest of industries, is deploying Big Data. Farmers can use data to analyze the soil and the weather to determine the precise amount of water to irrigate their crops.

ES: In the U.S., Facebook Creative Shop works with clients across 13 different industries. The level of adoption varies greatly by industry. Leaders in e-commerce use data extensively to offer the right people the right products. Retailers do the same. Automotive manufacturers want to serve truck ads to truck owners.

If a small business or an individual is just starting to consider using data in their marketing research, where do they begin? With so many numbers, and so many ways of crunching them, how do you decide which ones to pay attention to?

SC: In our book, “The Big Data-Driven Business,” Russ Glass, head of products for LinkedIn Marketing Solutions, and I outline several steps to getting started with using Big Data.

1. Start with thinking about your customer and use data to analyze what characteristics your best customers have in common. Are they in a particular industry? A specific region? A certain size? The idea is to then identify prospects who have similar characteristics and go after them.

2. Start small. Focus on a single kind of data — for example, email click-through rates — that may have an outsized impact on revenue.

3. Don’t bet everything on technology. It’s not necessary to buy a bunch of software, especially if you’re a small business. Some analytics tools, for instance, are free.

4. Hire the right people. If you’re looking for a new employee to take over data, make sure they’re part “math men” and part “Mad Men.”

5. Finally, measure. If you’re using data to analyze a particular marketing metric, and you’re moving the needle on that metric in a positive direction, make sure that revenue is also increasing. If not, you may be focusing on the wrong data.

ES: There are three million small businesses that advertise on Facebook every month and 50 million that maintain an active page.

Many are some of the most savvy users of our platforms. For a small business just starting out, the most important thing is to keep it simple.

1. Identify a business goal (a challenge or opportunity).

2. Figure out the one thing you would say to overcome the challenge or leverage the opportunity.

3. Consider the audience who matters most and what you know about them.

4. Think about an image that would convey just the right sentiment in that audience.

5. Create a post using your image and a short sentence that offers them a pithy reason to give you a try.

Let’s say you have a pizzeria and you do decent, family-oriented business thanks to your Two for Tuesday promotion, but you think there’s an opportunity to expand by catering to college students in your area on the weekend.

You can use Facebook to target people 18-25 who live within three miles of your store with an edgier message designed to drive thrifty college kids in on the weekend. At the same time, you can run a campaign targeting area families during the week. You might even go broad with the Two for Tuesday message.

If data is not being used to drive decision-making, is there any point in collecting it?

SC: I would say no. The data is going to be collected anyway, and it’s a shame to have all this data at your fingertips and not use it to make decisions. You have to realize that even if you decide not to use it, your competitors are going to use whatever data they can get their hands on, and they’re going to leave you behind.

ES: Businesses have always tried to learn more about their customers so that they can be more appealing to them. I’d say data is as valuable as the decisions it helps you to make more objectively.

What are some of the most credible existing sources of independent data for marketers? Journalists?

SCES: Sources for data vary by industry. There’s first-hand data that clients collect for themselves. Who has made purchases on their website, for instance. When people refer to Big Data, I think they’re often referring to third-party syndicated data. This comes from companies who aggregate people who buy soda or only buy organic. Or purchase a specific vehicle.

Journalists have been among the cleverest users of public records and other data to break news stories of all kinds.

At a time when seemingly everything we do is, to some degree, automatically data-mined, are we at risk of losing our instinctive judgment? I’m thinking here of how, if you worked at a commercial magazine in the pre-Internet era, writing great headlines was considered an art form — people spent hours on it, argued over it, etc., all from within a vacuum of knowing nothing for sure about what the audience might want. Fast-forward now to the days of SEO and content production, and the first priority is to write according to what people are already looking for. Are we really getting better at audience measurement and engagement, or are we all just working for Google?

SC: No. Even in data, there is a human element to making it work. There’s an art to determining what’s important to measure and pay attention to, and an instinct in determining what it means and how to act on it.

ES: There’s still plenty of room for spending hours sweating the nuances of getting a headline just right.

Let’s say it’s a story about clean drinking water. Once you’ve written the perfect headline that sums up the story and put it out just like you normally would, you can keep going.

You can consider audiences who may be interested in the story because it happened in the Midwest.

Or you might think that there are angles that connect the story to parents, populist politicians or environmentalists.

As you pushed out a story to multiple communities who are disproportionately likely to care, why wouldn’t you tweak the headline for the audience? And maybe the key image or lead?

Would that have helped an important story like that get much more attention a lot faster?

With the creation of Big Data accelerating exponentially, is there even any point in trying to protect our privacy?

SCES: Yes. Read up on your privacy settings on Facebook and other channels. You can limit exactly who you share information with. If you’re a college senior or young working professional entering the corporate world, consider the information that’s only a search away. Consider the image you want to convey. Should you “untag” yourself from some photos? Or, perhaps, change the privacy settings on your social media settings?

iven that you work for a company built on collecting consumer data and have a very nuanced grasp of just how granular that information gets, how concerned are you personally about managing your own privacy settings — whether on social media, web browsers, mobile, etc.?

ES: My settings are fairly open. I never have my address posted, but most people can see what I’m up to.


Republished with permission from the Meek School of Journalism and New Media

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