December 12, 2011 / by Heidi Sullivan

Photo courtesy LeSimonPix via Flickr

As 2011 draws to a close, we find ourselves asking, have public relations and marketing professionals fully transformed from one-way broadcasters to participants in a conversation with their customers and stakeholders?

We think most have, but the next wave of innovation in organizational communication is not going to wait until everyone has caught up with the evolution of the past three or four years.

This next wave will be about data-driven public relations. The challenge of analyzing and reacting to hundreds of millions of social messages per day has constituted our profession’s first foray into the realm of “Big Data”. But when we look at the signals that are available to be mined for guidance about crafting messaging and building relationships, it becomes clear that we have only just begun.

Take these examples of largely untapped information channels that communicators can utilize to figure out which questions and issues are most pressing for their constituents. Of course, this list is not comprehensive:

    • Web site usage data. It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling industrial equipment on your own Web site or knitted hats on an Etsy page; it’s essential to understand how people are navigating your Web presence. The days of leaving these insights to your Web designer have passed. If people are dropping out of a process on your Web site on the second of four steps, it may not be a design problem: a question on that second page may be turning people off, and understanding why is important in managing your brand’s reputation. Tools like Google Analytics, KissMetrics, Webtrends and Adobe Site Catalyst are great for answering these questions. For shared media, there are myriad free tools like Facebook Insights, Twitalyzer or TweetEffect that can offer analysis and insights into how your community reacts to your content.
    • Products that talk back. As more physical products ship with RFID tags and QR codes, the Web is interacting with physical space in ever-evolving ways. Also commonly known as the Internet of Things, this shift has been at least a decade in the making and still hasn’t quite come to fruition for most companies, so perhaps this one will make an encore appearance in our 2013 predictions. But if you work in PR or marketing, the insights that can be derived from these inputs – such as where and when a consumer interacts with a product–should be on hand as you develop your communications strategy.
    • Location-based and time-scaled data. Foursquare may prove to be the province of early adopters, but a growing portion of Facebook updates and tweets are now submitted with a location tag. Taken together, these tags form a dataset that can serve as a digital turnstile for any bricks-and-mortar business, and when the sentiment of those geo-tagged messages is layered on top, a geographic and time-scaled heatmap of satisfied and unsatisfied customers emerges. It’s also useful to analyze daily trends to identify the optimal time of day to post your content. This is powerful stuff for prioritizing your outreach efforts. Some easy tools to measure your time-of-day and day-of-the-week trends on large social sites include Crowdbooster, Facebook Insights, Social Flow and Tweet  Reports.
    • Unstructured text. Odds are the organization you work for has large volumes of unstructured text lying around that could provide information that helps you prioritize your communications goals–if only you could make sense of it. These troves often include records of customer service conversations, support issues, and consumer feedback. On the low end of the spectrum of available tools, you can run this stuff through a free word cloud tool like Wordle and see which topics pop out as recurring trends. On the high end, business intelligence tools from companies like HP’s Autonomy, IBM and SAP are taking a Big Data approach to this problem.

We don’t expect that all of these areas will see widespread adoption in PR and marketing in 2012. Some may not apply to your business. But this much a clear: social listening is the tip of the iceberg of Big Data that is coming to revolutionize organizational communications.

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About Heidi Sullivan

One of PRWeek’s 40 under 40 in 2012, Heidi Sullivan is Senior Vice President of Digital Content for Cision and a self-proclaimed social media metrics nerd. She leads the company’s digital and broadcast content teams, the global research team for Cision’s media database, Cision’s social media community team and the company’s content marketing strategy. You can find her on Twitter @hksully.