Satisfying Audiences Blog

Satisfying Audiences

Big Data means big money for news industry

12 August 2013 · By Elisabeth Clark

Newspapers need to join the Big Data movement to create customised — and therefore valuable — experiences for their readers.

So, it happened something like this. We were driving. It was just three short weeks ago, and we were taking my 16-year-old son to summer camp.

This one-hour drive from our northern Indiana home to a world away in southern Michigan has been happening since he was just 8 years old. Not only does he get to go someplace he loves, see his friends, and spend time sailing — we get some time to relax. We love summer camp.

Anyway, my husband was talking about Yogi Berra and “Yogi-isms,” and we were all having a good laugh. One of them caught my attention, though: “You can observe a lot by watching.”

That statement, funny just for what it is, kept running through my mind.

At my newspaper, we have just completed a major re-design of the daily print publication, along with a redo of our digital product, including, at long last, a pay meter. With the addition of the pay meter, we have the ability to know even more about our readers.

But are we really “watching”?

In order to make use of all that new pay meter data, plus the information we have had for years, we need to catch up to the emerging world of Big Data. We need the eyes of a fly — so we can see all the facets of our readers at once — and the brainpower to unite the many images into one useful vision.

A new age

This is not an entirely new notion in the big scheme of things. It’s just that our industry has been slow to take a seat at the Big Data table, slow to understand and embrace the concept, and slow to put concept in action.

Just take a moment and read this article from the August 2012 edition of Editor & Publisher, “Big Data is a big deal for newspapers.”

The author writes, “The disruptor du décade is called Big Data and it involves the collection, slicing and dicing of fragments of information that can be rapidly assembled to identify subtle macro trends or create actionable profiles that precisely target unique individuals.”  

Newspapers are in a unique position to use Big Data to really understand their customers. To play with the big boys, we need to become data-first organisations. We need to find ways to better collect, analyse, and understand our customers. This will allow us to create customised experiences.

By really understanding our users in real time, we can provide an experience that is confidently targeted to the individual.

Big Data is going to be big money. Not only that, no Big Data might equate to no money!

Frédéric Filloux imagined a brave new world of targeted content and advertising using newspaper data:

“Applied to news contents, the same techniques could help refine what is known about readers. For instance, a (Web site) could detect someone’s job changes by matching his reading patterns against millions of other monthly site visits.

“Based on this, if Mrs. Laura Smith is spotted with a 70% probability to have been promoted as a marketing manager in a San Diego-based biotech startup (five items), she can be served with targeted advertising especially if she has also appears to be a active hiker (sixth item).

“More importantly, over time, the (Web site) could slightly tailor itself. Of course, Mrs Smith will see more biotech stories in the business section than the average reader, but the Art & Leisure section will select more contents likely to fit her taste, the Travel section will look more like an outdoor magazine than a guide for compulsive urbanites.

“Progressively, the content Mrs. Smith gets will become both more useful and engaging.”

But how? Where do we even start?

First, we need to realise we are data-driven organisations. That’s the first step: reality.

We aren’t about the words on the page or the ads in the newspaper or online. Being data-first means collecting, analysing, understanding, and using data to create better customer (users, readers, and advertisers) experiences — and improve our business insights.

That’s according to McKinsey & Co. in the article, “Big Data, analytics and the future of marketing and sales.”

Big Data is the biggest game-changing opportunity for marketing and sales since the Internet went mainstream almost 20 years ago. That statement often prompts vigorous head-nodding from executives, but is quickly followed by head-scratching: “How can we make this happen?”

McKinsey offers three things companies must do to succeed with Big Data:

  1. Use analytics to identify valuable opportunities.

  2. Start with the consumer decision journey.

  3. Keep it fast and simple.

We can’t do it alone!

How do we do this? Perhaps some large newspapers like The New York Times or the Chicago Tribune might be able to sink the dollars into creating the architecture needed for gathering and analysing Big Data. But for the rest of us, it’s going to be all about partnerships.

Last month, Darrell Kunken wrote about the Sacramento Bee’s journey into Big Data by partnering with Stanford. Through this partnership, the Bee is working to create a customised, intelligent Web site for its users. Darrell’s blog showed a real-life example of how to actually USE Big Data to drive intelligent user experiences.

Who can we find that will help us create insights with our data? Partnering with universities like the Sacramento Bee did is certainly one good option.

How about joining forces with the many start-ups from around the country? What start-up Big Data company wouldn’t want to sink its teeth into the reams of data newspapers can provide?

How about companies that focus on digital advertising? Would we be selling our souls if we allowed our partners to merge our data with that of other organisations trying to find their path in the Big Data arena?

We need to remember newspapers are some of the largest data collectors in the world. It’s about time we realised our content is not just the words on the page, or the words on the screen. Our content is the fabric of our communities and of the people within them. We have all bytes and gigabytes that make up that fabric.

No other organisation in a community will know as much about its individual people than a newspaper. Our data, broken apart and reassembled, can help us tell the most powerful story of them all: the story of one.

Let’s face facts. The last 30 years have been getting tougher for us in this business. The last 10 years have been extremely difficult. Shrinking market shares, layoffs ... we have all been looking for the light at the end of the tunnel.

Big data can be the answer.

We just have to re-teach and re-train ourselves to understand and harness it. We need to really start “watching” our readers and use that information to make customised experiences that delight them.


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The Satisfying Audiences Blog aims to reflect print and digital content not just across platforms but extending into consumer events, non-news-related subscriptions and other audience vehicles for newsmedia companies. This blog written by INMA members is dedicated to identifying the emerging linkages between content, audiences, and platforms. The blog is an initiative by the INMA North America Division Board of Directors.


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