Local media need to think bigger about the Big Data opportunity

Big Data represents an enormous opportunity for local media – one they should seize with both hands, Steve Gray argues in this guest post. If they don’t, they run the risk of being overrun, he says.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | November 14, 2016

Data, data, data. From every direction lately, I’m being hit with urgent reminders about the imperative for local media companies to master data.

Every day, I’m more convinced: This is the next wave of threat — or opportunity — for local media companies. That’s how disruptive innovation works — you either grab the opportunity, or you are overrun by it.

As Big Data marches down upon us, I’m reminded of Longfellow’s poem, “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” [depicted in illustration above]. It tells how, on the eve of the American Revolution, patriots gave warning of the British Army’s advance by hanging lanterns in the belfry of Boston’s Old North Church:

“One if by land, two if by sea.”

I’m hanging out three lanterns. Big Data is bearing down on us right now — by land, by sea and from every other direction.

I’ve blogged about it before, focusing mainly on the opportunities in advertising and marketing. Here I wrote about being the first to offer Big Data solutions to advertisers. And here, I gave a vivid example of how this can work.

What data exist and how could they help us?

But the Big Data opportunity for local media companies is actually much bigger than that. If you ask yourself what data there are, and how they could help our business, the answers are almost overwhelming:

  • Data about our subscribers. Not just their names, addresses and phone numbers, but the huge amounts of other data — demographics, lifestyles, interests, etc. — available from Big Data sources.
  • Data about our digital audiences. Not just page views and unique visitor counts, but the vast amounts of data generated by their actions on the web, revealing interests, characteristics, purchasing paths, lifestyles and much more.
  • Data about everyone else in our markets — those who don’t subscribe to our print products and don’t use our websites. In the dawning Big Data era, you will fall out of the race unless you have the Big Data profiles of ALL the adults and households in your market and can help your customers reach the right ones for their products or services.
  • Data about the businesses and organizations in our markets. This information isn’t as new to us as the types above, but there’s a lot more of it now. With Big Data analytics and lead generation tools , we can see who are the best prospects for our advertising and marketing solutions.

Add up these categories, and there are millions, maybe billions, of valuable, actionable data points available within our markets. And millions more are being created all the time.

A new vision of a local media company

With that realization, a new vision of a local media company is developing in my mind. It looks like this:

We have become the leading masters of local Big Data on individuals, households and businesses and how best to reach them — unmatched by any other local competitor. We can do all of these and more:

  1. For advertising and marketing customers, we target by characteristics and/or behaviors, using targeted digital display, email, social channels, mobile and desktop. We also use our clients’ customer lists to generate look-alike prospects and market them through the channels to which they respond best. 
  2. For our sales teams, we identify best prospects through their digital behaviors and nurture them through the decision funnel until they become our customers.
  3. For the content we present, we use Big Data to understand which content resonates with our users. We produce more and more of that content, becoming more relevant and more integral to people in our communities. This is driving steep gains in traffic and engagement on our websites and apps.
  4. We use web visitor behavior data on our sites to personalize content, and to manage our content meters to induce a larger number of frequent users to subscribe.
  5. For circulation sales, we generate look-alikes of our subscribers and market these non-subscribers through the channels to which they respond best.

We have some of the necessary data for these things, but we need better analysis. And there’s much more data we need to acquire, integrate and interpret.

These are big opportunities. But I’m confident that there are many, many more.

We just don’t have enough experience with, or knowledge of, the potentials of digital data to see them yet. The more we learn, the more we will see.

Who could help us with this? Lately I’ve been looking up resumes of “data scientists” on job boards. Excerpts from a couple of resumes:

  • “I have direct work experience developing innovative and creative solutions for data extraction, transformation and loading, data staging, data analysis, and modeling complex data relationships. I strive to create actionable results through practical and creative solutions to both known and evolving problems.”
  • “Taking anything from operational data warehouse environments to unstructured data archives, I am responsible for determining and creating the data architecture plan to support ongoing analytics, reporting and modeling exercises. Familiar with the following tools: [followed by a list of more than 20 analytics, digital advertising and reporting tools, only a few of which are known to me].”

What’s forming in my mind is a picture of a data scientist position at my company, Morris Communications. We have data scattered everywhere, so we need someone who has the data skills mentioned above.

It also needs to be someone with strong entrepreneurial instincts — someone who can see which of our existing data — and what additional data — can drive better decisions and shape new business opportunities.

Serious offers from vendors

Some of the Big Data pings hitting me lately are coming from vendors offering to help us. Here are some quotes from various marketing emails I’ve received in just the last week or so:

  • “One of the roadblocks to delivering personalized experiences across channels is the heavy lifting it takes to centralize customer data, build profiles and targeted segments, and push them back to your customer touchpoint tools.”
  • “The concept of ‘Identity’ is having an identity crisis. While there has never been more data available for reaching customers, there is a lack of resolution, both conceptually and practically, around the industry as to what it really means.”
  • “[Our company’s] goal is to turn information in business insights to enhance production, cross-channel distribution, and value creation. [We] have helped media owners understand their audience and assist their clients to make informed media choices. Some of the media verticals are:
    • “Publishers: Digital tracking and predictive modeling, content and position analytics, subscription analytics and user benchmarking, journey and funnel analytics.”
  • From a Marketo white paper:
    • “In a business of any size — especially one with an engaging web and social media presence — buyer interactions can number in the thousands, millions or even hundreds of millions. Without the right tools to automate the planning, execution and measurement, even the hardest-working marketer can be overwhelmed by the complexity.”

New, data-driven business models are developing all around us. Our companies are sitting on sizable repositories of data, and we could quickly gain more by deploying the right strategies. And outside our companies, there are massive repositories of data about local people and businesses that we could integrate into profitable new initiatives.

So I’m hanging out three lanterns, folks. Big Data is pouring into and out of our markets. Let’s mobilize and develop the killer data-driven strategies we need to maximize the opportunity.

Steve Gray is Vice President of Strategy and Innovation at Morris Communications, Augusta, Georgia, USA. He is a former managing publisher of The Christian Science Monitor. From 2005 to 2009, Gray led Newspaper Next, a three-year innovation project of the American Press Institute that worked to identify new opportunities, technologies and detailed business initiatives for the newspaper industry. This post from his blog at MediaReset was republished with his permission

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