Forget big data – it’s all about small data

Across the marketing world I reckon big data is the buzzword de jour. The phrase big data allows the PR and marketing community to avoid any awkward silences.

The mere mention of big data seems to create an aura of invincibility, deep knowledge and confidence. Some have decided that entire PR agencies should be built around big data. But what on earth does this mean in reality? What is big data in the context of PR?

In a marketing sector like PR, where data is potentially going to be used as a planning and feedback tool, big data means massive databases containing demographic profiles of the public. I imagine the idea is that PR agencies then use this big data to plan campaigns, to find influencers and manage the science of communication.

Sounds brilliant. Except of course that PR agencies don't have access to census-type information. A number of PR agencies have research firms as part of their group so perhaps they might be at an advantage in an era of big-data driven PR. (Think Edelman Bertrand, ICM, Huntsworth and independents like Lansons and Opinium). But even then I think there are a number of practical and potentially legal implementations around the use of big data in PR.

Data protection laws are a barrier for a start. You can only access data from those respondents that have signed into your marketing/research scheme to form your panel.

Then of course there is the huge software power that is required to harness this data and the technological and people resource required to use and maintain it.

I’m afraid the idea of big data hubs in PR agencies does not seem practical. PR agencies are not going to have access to the census-type information that the big data visualisation requires. Nor do I believe that big data in a PR firm will be particularly useful. The same is true for marketing agencies and ad agencies and indeed any in-house marketing department.

It seems to me that our dinner party conversation breaker should be small data. It's all about small data. Client teams should be developing and have access to statistically valid samples of consumers/stakeholders which match the target audience of their clients.

By manipulating this data and using this audience to research likes and desires, PR firms will then be able to use this small data to target consumers and stakeholders appropriately with relevant messages through the right channels.

These detailed and specific small data sets should not create the data-protection legality issues of big data, nor will they require such the enormous costs to build and maintain. And because the data is a small sample set, interrogation of the data will be that much faster, potentially even close to real-time.

For all these practical and legal reasons I believe the future of data in PR is small data, not big data.