Big Data 101: A Beginner’s Guide

Written by Center for Social Commerce

Published on February 9, 2015

by Lauryn Botterman

Are you intimidated by the buzzwords “big data” and “analytics,” which seem to be having a major moment right now? Do you vaguely nod and “uh huh” when you hear someone talk about these topics, but feel as if you don’t have a full grasp on what it all really means? Fear not, my confused friends. Despite all the hype, these terms are not so difficult to comprehend.

So have a seat; we’re going to take this slow. I’m here to give you the lowdown on what’s up with all that big data/analytics stuff, including its real-world applications.

Lesson #1: It’s not all about math

When you think about data, you might inherently think of complex Excel charts and multi-variable equations. For my right-brained peers, this might sound like your worst nightmare.

Sure, numbers and statistics are an important component of big data and analytics. The ability to quantify and measure progress—in regards to social media impressions, web traffic, profits, or other key performance indicators—is essential. But you don’t have to be an astrophysicist to figure out how to do this. Contrary to popular belief, communicators and creative types can, in fact, master the art of measurement.

There are a plethora of online tools available that can automatically collect data and turn it into fancy charts and graphs. When you get out into the professional world, your company or agency might have a subscription to advanced analytics software, such as KISSmetric, Sysomos, or Mint, which can essentially do all the grunt work for you. In the meantime, you can familiarize yourself with some free and user-friendly web and social media analytics tools to get a grasp on how they work. A free account on Google Analytics, one of the most popular tools, will give you access to a wide array of options to analyze everything from page views to unique visitors to referrals (how users landed on your site), and beyond. If you have a personal website or blog, this is a great way to get insight regarding the popularity of your content. Here’s a brief guide to getting started. Twitter fanatics might benefit from utilizing free analytics features on Hootsuite or SumAll, which provide information on number of interactions, top tweets, most influential followers, and more. With a little practice and poking around, it’s easy to gain a foundational grasp of how to use these tools.

But—even more important than knowing how to run a weekly analytics report is understanding what it all means in context. Pretty graphs and tables mean nothing without a framework about the broader implications of that data. Are your posts about your trip to Europe getting more traffic than average? Maybe visitors want to read more about that topic. Did your tweet about an upcoming concert garner 15 retweets? Could be because you used the right hashtags. It’s called analytics for a reason. Communications professionals must not only understand how to gather data; they must be able to identify key insights from that information and apply those insights to improve content strategy.

Lesson #2: Every good campaign starts with metrics

The cold, hard truth is that creativity and strong writing skills can only go so far. Without a strong foundation rooted in research and facts, communications professionals risk completely missing the mark with their campaigns and messaging. Speculation about the behaviors and desires of key publics is messy and imprecise. Savvy communications professionals know that they must start with strong data. Instead of guessing what types of content your followers are most interested in, you can use analytics tools (like the ones mentioned above) to see if you’re getting higher engagement when you post videos, for instance, as opposed to blog posts. No matter what type of organization you’re working for—a multi-national company, small business, nonprofit, or political candidate—your ultimate goal will essentially be the same: Maximizing return on investment. You need a strategic rationale behind every decision you make. When your boss asks, “Why did we increase our social marketing budget by $10,000 this quarter?”, you’ll need to point to hard data that informed your decision.

The variety of insight you can glean from even a cursory analysis is wide-ranging. Good old-fashioned surveys and polls can still provide valuable information in some cases, but in the realm of social media, anything is possible. Experts in social marketing point to several key metrics to look at when building a campaign. These include:

  • Reach: How many people is your content reaching? This can include your original posts, as well as shares by others.
  • Engagement: Are users liking, sharing, and clicking on your content? What types of content attract the most interaction?
  • Conversion rate: What percentage of your posts or website views directly yielded a desired result, such as purchases or sign-ups?

You can learn more about social media metrics here.

Lesson #3: It’s constantly evolving

It’s important to understand that big data is not a static concept. It is still an emerging field, so every day brings new trends and developments. Google “big data” and you’ll find a series of seemingly disjointed articles alongside ads from software companies. There is no succinct definition of big data because it can be applied within a broad range of subjects—from social media habits to health information to financial records and beyond. Without a concrete definition, big data can seem exceedingly esoteric. To fully grasp its implications, it helps to look at specific instances where companies have applied big data to improve their bottom line.

Netflix, for example, has been a frontrunner in the use of data to predict customer behavior. It uses data on users’ viewing patterns to power its recommendation engine, pushing the right content to the right people. It reportedly created ten different versions of a trailer for its original series “House of Cards,” each of which focused on a different aspect of the show. Users were shown a version of the trailer tailored to their past viewing patterns—so fans of Kevin Spacey (the show’s star) saw a trailer that prominently featured the actor, whereas fans of female-driven shows saw a version focused on the female leads. The bottom line? “House of Cards” was a huge hit and has been renewed for a third season. By utilizing big data insights, Netflix developed a truly innovative promotional strategy and took the guesswork out of audience targeting.

Long story short…

Don’t be intimidated by big data and analytics. With a little reading and research, you’ll understand that it’s not quite as daunting as it seems. Regardless of your career aspirations within the communications field, your ability to comprehend and utilize these concepts will make you a more marketable and resourceful employee.