PRNewser Interview: Stephen Baker, BusinessWeek Senior Writer, “The Numerati” Author

Stephen Baker’s career as a journalist has taken him around the world, from Mexico and Venezuela to Paris, and began with The Black River Tribune, a local newspaper in Ludlow, VT.

Baker is a speaker at our upcoming Mediabisto Circus conference, and PRNewser caught up with him this week to discuss his panel at Circus, the marketing ramifications of data presented in his recently released book, “The Numerati,” before of course getting into some PR related topics.

Your panel at Mediabistro Circus is titled, “Relevance and Influence: Can Data Bring You Closer to Your Audience?” with the descriptor of, “where we’re headed with data, and how it is impacting marketing, advertising, and the media business as a whole.” Without giving away too much from the discussion – what are some of these impacts?

I would say that there are two big areas that I barely brushed on in the book that are going to be enormous area of opportunities for marketers.

First, location based stuff – it’s just exploding and it’s only going to grow, as we get smarter phones that have Wi-Fi and blue tooth capabilities, marketers are increase going to be able to see where we are with more precision.

Nokia this year alone is going to produce 200m smart-phones with Wi-Fi capes. It is moving from an elite tech audience into mainstream. They are going to be able to compare us to other people and movements and create tribes of people based on their patterns and movement.

Another area that I just wrote about in a cover story coming out today is friendship. In the last 10 years we’ve shared with the world enormous amounts of info about who we care about. They can study the networks of our friends and based on the idea that friends resemble each other, statistically speaking, they can make inferences on things.

This is important for marketing and it’s a real hotbed of research activity at places like Yahoo, Microsoft and Google.

What companies are doing a good job of utilizing data to grow their business and communicate with customers?

Google – its entire business is data. And so I would say they are the best at using data to grow their business, communicate with the customer, and provide customers with new database services that in turn give Google more info about customers and tie them into a tighter relationship with Google. I would say they’re knocking the ball out of the park in that area.

Another company that is extremely advanced in most of these data studies and applications is IBM. They’re a big leader.

Can BusinessWeek use data on their own readers to bypass intermediaries and deal directly with advertisers?

In theory, yes. The successful media companies are going to be those that reach an understanding with the customer and the customer will agree to provide them with more and more info so media companies can give them targeted content and relevant advertising.

A lot of people think that sounds scary, but in many areas we welcome those kind of services. With Amazon and Netflix most of us don’t mind if they give us recommendations based on algorithms or patterns. More smart media companies are going to have to do that. Cutting edge companies are coming into our turf. We can’t be as smart as them but we at last have to be playing in the same park.

In your book, “The Numerati” you wrote, “In a single month, Yahoo! alone gathers 110 billion pieces of data about its customers, according to a 2008 study by the research firm comScore. Each person visiting sites in Yahoo’s network of advertisers leaves behind, on average, a trail of 2,520 clues. Piece together these details, you might think, and our portraits as shoppers, travelers, and workers would jell in an instant. Summoning such clarity, however, is a slog. When I visit Yahoo’s head of research, Prabhakar Raghavan, he tells me that most of the data trove is digital garbage.” How can marketers sort through what is worthwhile from what is garbage?

Well, you know, they have to study it. The easy thing is to say they have to ask themselves, “What data matters?” – historically, what have you needed to know about your customer? The fact is, if you do analyze a lot of data, correlations pop up that you never dreamed of. It’s a hard one because if you dive in there, you have to do it smart and it’s going to take a lot of time, but if you don’t your competitors are going to.

You need really smart people who can do a cost benefit analysis on the types of queries you’re going to do. The risk is getting to much granular info about people and dividing them into groups when in fact they have a whole lot in common.

Overall, where would you say the percentages break down, in terms of people who are “creeped out” by all of this, versus those who “embrace” it?

I’d say generally speaking, they tend to break down generationally. When I give talks I can see that the older people have more concern about this, generally speaking, than the younger people. A lot of people say “How do we protect ourselves from the Numerati?” — and the fact is, we as a society haven’t figured out what we want protection from. It’s not us and the Numerati. It’s us figuring out how we’re going to manage this new wave of personal data analysis.

Shifting gears to BusinessWeek, what areas do you see where the publication may increase coverage? What areas have been of interest to readers?

I think that were going to see more coverage of green issues, more about China. And we’re going to see more about poverty.

Getting into PR, what are some of the shared characteristics of PR people that you’ve developed good relationships with over the years?

They read my stuff. And learn to think about things the way I do, and they can recommend stories that make sense for me. I know PR people can’t read everyone’s stuff, but the ones that really understand what I’m looking for, know me, and we communicate on Twitter and we comment on each others blogs, that sort of good stuff.

How much does including “multimedia” content such as video, images, slide-shows, etc. help when pitching BusinessWeek?

Well, online, which is of growing importance, really cares about different types of media. Audio/video, slide-shows. If you’re talking to someone who is planning an online story, that kind of approach is relevant. For old fashioned print stuff, we eventually create some multimedia stuff to accompany stories, but we often don’t think about it day one, we think about if it fits later.