Why media must learn to trust big data
I’ve worked with public service media companies across Europe and all of them claim to understand the importance of big data. But in my experience too many decisions are still based at best on very limited data, and at worst on gut feeling.
Of course, media managers already work with data such as audience figures or online page views. The problem is that by the time the viewing figures are out, it’s too late.
The truth is that few managers are comfortable with using data during the planning phase.
In programme departments, “creatives” pitch content ideas to commissioning editors who green light the projects they like. Sometimes, they may consult an audience panel, but that’s as far as it goes.
Many editors are wary about big data, believing that it belongs to the world of manufacturing and science. The challenge for us is to demystify processes that are really just common sense.
Imagine if you were organizing a dinner party. No one would need to tell you to find out about special dietary needs – for example, quiche Lorraine won’t be suitable for Jewish or Moslem guests – and you’d want to know if any of your guests had allergies.
Before inviting anyone, you would need to be sure that you had enough chairs, plates, cutlery and so forth. You’d probably compile a shopping list of the food and drink you needed based on the number of guests.
It would be foolish to go ahead and invite your guests without considering any of the above questions. You’d want to make sure in advance that your evening was a success, rather than waiting to see how it went.
It is the same in the office, but because of the volume of available data we need analysts to clean it and present it in an accessible format. Without data, it is impossible to make content that is consistently relevant and meets real needs.
I’m neither advocating a painting by numbers approach or suggesting that we stifle originality. If used smartly, data can bolster creativity.
The huge amount of available data provides national broadcasters with an opportunity to reinvent public service at a time when audiences have new expectations. The internet has created an environment of abundant choice, where traditional media companies are no longer the exclusive packagers and distributors of content.
Some of Jay Rosen’s “the people formerly known as the audience” even have their own audiences, especially on social networks. Commissioning editors are not worth their salt if they are not listening to audiences on social media.
Public service is by definition about catering to the needs of citizens. Online that means using data to make content that is both relevant and personal, while respecting and protecting privacy.
Smart broadcasters are encouraging their audience to share data with them in order to tailor recommendations to individual interests, preferences and consumption patterns. They are providing users not only with access to their favourite content across multiple devices, but also local news, weather and road conditions.
Used smartly, data can help media companies to retain audiences and increase consumption. It is about putting audiences in the driving seat.
It is surprising, though, how many broadcasters are still producing and delivering content in a traditional way. Their focus is still on scheduling and they only use social networks as platforms for pushing messages, rather than as an opportunity for listening.