Space is really, really big. As it turns out, data is going to be even bigger. The content we actively create, exchange, curate and archive represents a veritable unending avalanche of digital wealth. The information deluge is fed by corporations, businesses, institutions and non-profits. Then add to that content from the vast array of social networks via blogs, status updates, forum discussions, video, audio and images. This combination of traditional structured business intelligence information plus unstructured social network content can offer a bonanza of perspectives and insight into the way businesses, consumers and organizations relate to and interact with products, services and the global economy. The value of this information, according to a McKinsey & Company report, can help companies and organizations increase productivity, reduce costs and make better decisions.
Welcome to the world of Big Data. And we're talking a lot of information. Gigabytes? Hardly. And forget about a few terabytes. This is the mathematical domain of petabytes, zettabytes and exabytes (1,000,000,000,000,000,000). We're at a scale, according to IBM, that is 10,000 times larger than the average enterprise database. Big Data is important for marketers because it adds an important new dimension to the Holy Grail quest for delivering measurable (and acceptable) social media ROI to the C-Suite.
Sure we already have been parsing tons of data, but McKinsey projects the convergence of different systems and technologies is paving the way for an explosion in new analytical applications for this expanding, interconnected, highly relational global database. Large numbers enable predictive approaches that show promise for social media, such as cluster analysis, a highly complex way of assessing the gathering of words and things, and semantic analysis, which is a form of sentiment analysis but with a wider Big Data lens. The Big Data impact represents a competitive threat to businesses that ignore the trend. Business school graduates have been applying analytics to data repositories for decades. For advertising, marketing and public relations, understanding how you can help companies and clients use Big Data will eventually be (if not already) an important element of your professional and marketplace skillset.
As has been pointed out, social media ROI is actually business ROI. Your measurement infrastructure will need to incorporate real-time monitoring of streaming and trending information coupled with historical views of archived data. IBM's Global Technology Outlook for 2011 predicts that we will need to run Reactive Analytics to assess the live data streams and Deep Analytics to dig into the vast repositories of stored information. No matter how you slice it, Big Data means Big Business. It's also for small business, government, non-profit organizations and educational institutions. Even consumers will eventually access tools that can help them leverage the ever-expanding digital universe.
Big Data metrics and measurement will eclipse traditional social media monitoring and analytical tools. That's probably okay with most social media marketers, since in the past year there has been a steady chorus of blog posts dismissing conventional ideas about counting visits, mentions, followers, replies, tweets, re-tweets and the other usual social suspects. Counting things does not deliver value; how we look at the count yesterday and today and parse that assessment through the filter of Big Data analytics offers marketers the promise of replacing valuations based on size to actionable business analysis tied to the many shades of the meaning of the numbers. Through meaning we can turn the tables on social media ROI by shifting the business equation from what we have achieved to where we are going or where we can go if the market place demands a course change. Anyone can count stuff; the new digital marketer will make sense of the math and help companies make more informed decisions. Marketing and PR professionals who started in the traditional media world by now have adopted social media strategies and tools; integrating analytics into your business is the next logical step.
As for measures of social influence by tools such as Klout? You can game Klout. And Klout has changed the rules of the game (the algorithm) and probably will in the future. It's up to you and your company to decide if the Klout tool − or any single social algorithm for that matter - delivers actionable value to your company or your client. The Big Data impact may be the game-changer because the dataset and the potential permutations of algorithmic approaches are so immense that no one scale, score or logic path may serve as a one-size-fits-all analytical solution for every business. Measurement influencers such as Katie Paine remind us to measure what matters. What matters to your business may not matter to mine, and Big Data may usher in an era of customized algorithms that will enable companies to assess their global social positioning on scales that may be irrelevant to colleagues and competitors.
If you haven't already guessed, custom algorithms will rule the day. That also spells opportunity. In the U.S. alone, McKinsey projects a need for as many as 200,000 people with skills in data analytics. Add to that another 1.5 million managers and analysts who can help companies make decisions based on Big Data. That means in-house hiring and contracts for social media agencies and consultants with analytical capabilities. If you went into advertising, marketing or public relations because math just wasn't your academic strength, all the great content you are creating and traffic you are delivering is setting the stage for new jobs and business opportunities for social media marketing. Big Data needs to be analyzed, reviewed, crunched, interpreted and reported.
Nobody is going to expect you to head back to college and give up your nights and weekends for an executive MBA degree, with a focus on business analytics, statistics and computer programming (though it definitely wouldn't hurt). Here are some ideas on how to gain the skills and knowledge that can help you incorporate Big Data into your social media marketing repertoire:
1) Big Data will necessarily involve Big Number crunching. Most marketers are masters of Word and PowerPoint. Excel is going to be your new friend. Online courses offered by Lynda.com other educational sites are excellent and relatively low cost, especially when compared with the cost and time associated with enrolling at a local college.
2) If your company or clients can afford to subscribe to social media monitoring and analytics services such as Cision, Crowdbooster, CustomScoop, KISSmetrics, Sysomos, NM Incite or Radian6, it's time to start thinking in terms of the Big Data future. These services are thinking about it, probably so should you.
3) There are numerous online courses for learning statistics and analytics. But another option is to develop a basic understanding of the fundamentals of data mining and analysis and then outsource your requirements to an expert. As a marketer, your mission is the Big Picture; you don't have to turn into a math geek (unless you're looking for a career shift).
4) Google Analytics keeps getting better and better, especially with the addition of new social tools. There's a lot you can learn at no cost via books and online courses to master the tool. The best part about Google Analytics is the ability to immediately work your own live company data, versus textbook examples. Yahoo Web Insights is a good alternative to the Google dominion, featuring alternative ways to drill down on data to provide further insights on visitor interests and demographics. And don't forget to explore HootSuite's social analytics tools which include Google Analytics integration.
5) If Big Data seems overwhelming, you're not alone according to a Columbia Business School report. Even the definition of Big Data is in flux. The good news: In this early stage you have time to learn and be an innovator in new approaches to social media measurement and analytics.
Are you ready for the promise of Big Data? Do you think Big Data will deliver a new way to approach the debate over social media ROI and the skeptical C-Suite?
This monthly Social Business Trends column is contributed by Joel Don. Joel is principal of Comm Strategies, a public relations, social media and content engineering consultancy. He was formally trained as a journalist, working for newspapers and magazines throughout the country. Before starting his own business, Joel worked for several agencies, served as a public information officer at UCLA and UC Irvine and directed business and financial communications at a Fortune 500 computer manufacturer. Joel also started a company that developed a digital solution for measuring the readership of company news prior to the advent of today's link-tracking systems.