Leveraging Big Data for Strategic Communications


The application of big data has changed the narrative in measuring the impact of strategic communications on brands and advertising, writes Emma Okonji

Several decades ago, it was difficult to measure the impact of advertising and other strategic communication endeavors due to poor tools available to measure communications impact. For several centuries vague and imprecise relationships were drawn between communication campaigns and the impact they had on the target audiences they were meant to impact.

A successful American merchant, John Wanamaker, whose retail store chain business reached its peak several decades ago, said the problem of measuring the impact of advertising and other strategic communication endeavors remained a mirage.

That was the case because of the poor tools available to measure communications impact. Often in the in the field of marketing, communicators were content with conclusions like, “we advertised last week and sales increased, so it must have worked.” At that time, communicators would always generalise their conclusions with the belief that most advertisements were actually meeting the targeted audience without proof.

Computing tools
But with the emergence of computers and computing technology and strong links to computing tools from computer science, mathematics, statistics and engineering, the narrative changed and these technology tools have continued to play a bigger role in the transmission of messages as well as the measurement of the impact of mass messages and strategic communications. Today, these tools are not only applied in the verification of the impact of communications but also serve as platforms to message design and targeting.

For example, the controversies that trailed the election of President Donald Trump of the United States (US), the allegations leveled against Cambridge Analytical in Brexit and the US elections that brought President Trump to office; the revelations of Edward Snowden and National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programme, brought to light by Wiki leaks, all attest to the fact that the application of the tools of mathematical sciences to strategic communications can cause significant disruptions in politics, social behavior and even consumption patterns.

As technology evolves, new measuring tools like big data and big data analytics also evolved that completely demystified and transformed measurement of key results in advertising and strategic communications. These tools and the data they work with are at the heart of what we have come to describe as big data.

According to American data analytics giant, SAS, “Big data is a term that describes the large volume of data – both structured and unstructured – that inundate a business on a day-to-day basis. But it’s not the amount of data that’s important. It’s what organisations do with the data that matters. Big data can be analysed for insights that lead to better decisions and strategic business moves.”

Impact of big data

Big data has continued to address the challenges of inaccurate measurement through the use of empirical data, not only confirming what aspect of ad spend is wasted but even determining what should be spent to avoid wastage altogether.

Today, big data has made it possible for communicators and advertisers to personalise and customise marketing communications messaging and even ads to each specific person. With big data analytics, advertisers are able to reach each individual no matter the size of the people. With big data, people can now even customise and personalise website pages depending on who’s viewing them, where they are and when they are viewing these websites. The study of behaviour and understanding customers’ preferences using complex algorithms and therefore design specific messages that meet their personalities and preferences that will increase the success of strategic communications goals, have been made easy through big data analytics.


Despite the ease that big data and big data analytics have brought to the advertising industry, a recent research survey conducted by Caritas Communications, a Nigerian public relations firm, revealed that as laudable as the possibilities of big data are, Africa has been slow in adopting the technology.

Big data techniques have been applied to address challenges in communications, media and entertainment globally. Other fields of human endeavours where it has also been applied include: banking and finance, healthcare, education, manufacturing and human resources, government, retail and wholesale trade. These sectors have benefitted immensely from insights generated from big data. But in Africa, however, there has been a slow uptake of big data for a number of reasons. Advancing the reasons based on the inference drawn from the survey report that was conducted by Caritas Communications, its Head, Media and Communications, Mr. Ejiro Obodo, blamed the situation on paucity of data and poor record keeping practices; illiteracy and poor reading culture; low investment in analytical tools and lack of technology infrastructure; preponderance of decision making based on hunches and rule of thumb; lack of adequate investment in data gathering in the public and private sector; inadequate manpower to handle big day problems; and high cost of data and computing, among others.

According to Obodo, “In particular, the monumental skills gap makes it inevitable for small African companies and agencies to go without tailored insights because, where available, they cannot afford to pay a big data expert. The skills gap is so pronounced that in countries like Nigeria and Kenya, job postings for data experts in companies are posted periodically with most of them left unfilled because of the dearth of required skill.”

Public relations companies and indeed others who are interested in strategic communication must bar these limitations as Mr. Wanamaker would have done in the 20th Century, if the technology at our disposal today was available to him,” Obodo said.

Granted that not all strategic communications companies can make the required move to adopt big data and analytics in their operations, those that have the wherewithal to do so, stand the chance of gaining considerably and improving the quality of service delivery their clients enjoy.

“At Caritas, we toe this line as we have made strategic investment in tools that give us some edge. Of particular interest is our investment in a big data tool which uses algorithms to sift through the internet and notify us of hidden stories related to our clients on Twitter, Facebook.com, LinkedIn, blogs, Instagram, news websites among others. But this is not all there is. Big data offers so much more,” Obodo said.


Big data in Africa

Looking at the opportunities of big data for strategic communications, Obodo is of the view that PR companies on the African continent, would stand a chance of benefitting from big data. Citing Ulrike Röttger et al in his book on big data analytics, which explained that “Big data enables strategic communicators to analyse the needs, opinions, attitudes and behaviour of their stakeholders in detail. From the planning to evaluation, big data analyses make corporate communication more analytic and potentially more strategic,” Obodo said PR practitioners, who adopt big data and analytics, equip themselves with broader knowledge base for situation analysis. In this context, big data can be used to analyse things like share-of-voice and company/client activities in a more meaningful and far reaching way. The resulting improvement in market and competition analysis provides insights about the share of one’s online discourse or which company has a greater share-of-voice across several regions.

“Company/client profiling is enhanced by insights generated from big data. Detailed analysis of company-relevant topics and how insights should be applied to ad wording/messaging or which channels should be used to disseminate information or the optimisation of online-touchpoint analysis are all potential uses of big data,” he said, adding that big data provides opportunity to better develop one’s own strategy. It can be used to analyse how, when and most of all where the target group looks for information about a certain group of products or a topic, as well as in which ways it expresses its opinion. Detailed target group analyses of aspects like region and demography are also possible.


The predictions

According to the research report, due to the scarcity of fibre optic network connectivity in Africa, mobile phones are the major means of internet connectivity. The sub-Saharan Africa has a subscriber base of over 444 million, equivalent to about nine per cent of subscribers globally. The regional subscriber base is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.8 per cent for the period 2017–2022, which is more than double the global growth rate over the same period.

The total number of smartphone connections in sub-Saharan Africa stood at 250 million at the end of 2017, equivalent to around a third of the total connections base. From this massive number of devices, enormous quantities of data are generated. For every moment social media is assessed, a picture is uploaded, orders are made online, the weather forecast app is used on a mobile device, and data is generated that is added to the vast amounts already in circulation.

This, according to the report, has shaped new avenues of information about consumer habits. Across the continent, both domestic businesses and international companies are rotating to big data to inform their growth strategies. Data-oriented start-ups are also beginning to grow. Banks and financial firms have noted this development and are clamber to use the data generated by their customers to improve customer service and security.

The report also looked at mobile revolution in Africa and how it has recorded tremendous rise for financial inclusion, while citing the World Bank’s statement, which said between 2011 and 2014 the proportion of adults with a bank account in sub-Saharan Africa rose from 24 per cent to 34 per cent, adding that commercial banks in sub-Saharan Africa could use the statistics to increase the number of future bank accounts.

The report also considered the impact of big data on healthcare and how healthcare organisations can benefit from digitising, combining and effectively using big data. This could enable a range of players, from single-physician offices and multi-provider groups to large hospital networks, to deliver better and more effective services. The healthcare sector generates huge volumes of data by essentially keeping meticulous patient-health records thus with the turn to digital record keeping, large volumes of data are generated.

“Just like in the business world, availability of big data in the healthcare sector, presents an opportunity to discover relationships, patterns and trends within the data. Same as in the business world, big data presents an opportunity to identify patterns and trends in data, which when analysed, presents an opportunity in deriving insights that might lead health providers, practitioners and stakeholders in making better diagnostics, discovering better treatments for diseases, monitoring and preventing disease outbreaks,” the report said.

The report is of the view that big data and data analytics would allow companies understand their customers better and provide valuable insights about human behaviour and intentions. It added that with support and direction, the development community could actually encourage the growth of the craft of ‘data science’ to enhance evidence-based decision-making.