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PR and the internet of things

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By tapping into large sources of data, smart companies are beginning to understand how the demographics and buying habits of an ill-defined crowd can be distilled into valuable marketing information to drive bottom lines.

A research report from McKinsey, published in 2011, said that big data will become a key basis of competition, underpinning new waves of productivity growth, innovation, and consumer surplus.

The report said that 15 out of 17 sectors in the US have more data stored per company than the US Library of Congress, and that the value of all that big data could translate into a $300 billion saving for US healthcare, a €250 billion value for Europe’s public sector – and a 60% increase in retailers’ operating margins.

Understanding and making use of big data isn’t just a challenge for marketers; it’s a challenge also for PR, with content management becoming of increasing importance – with compelling messages for smaller and smaller groups, even down to individual consumers.

It’s something that, conceptually, is well understood. Content marketing topped the digital priority list in 2013, according to a Econsultancy report, although only a minority of companies had a defined content marketing strategy in place or dedicated people to carry one out.

Sophisticated Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems and data mining capabilities now allow marketers to focus messages onto comparatively small target groups and, as big data gets bigger, those groups become smaller – the ultimate content management opportunity.

Being able to talk to consumers on a one-to-one basis remains the ultimate dream. However, understanding consumer behaviour and market dynamics is one thing; big data, in particular using social media channels, will soon allow companies to talk to you and me – with a different sales or PR message for each of us.

But big data is set to become a whole lot bigger as “the internet of things” picks up pace, and the virtual and real worlds become a little more blurred.

The internet of things is all about making more intelligent use of information, by building in communications functionality in more and more stuff – from cars to farm animals – including the stuff we carry around: everything from store and credit cards to mobile devices.

Nor is it entirely science fiction, and there are think tanks and a consortium dedicated to its development. It has come about through wireless and computer technology – and has implications for virtually everything. (It’s sometimes also called the “internet of everything.”)

Imagine then a world in which every human being, animal or thing has an IP address and the means to wirelessly transmit information. On the upside, it could be a heart patient with a monitor implanted, and who can be alerted when an irregularity occurs.

But as more and more things become smart, capable of monitoring and transmitting our every click or purchase, and GPS always knowing precisely where we are – the implications become staggering.   

The security implications are obvious; indeed, Cisco has just launched a competition to find new ways to handle security in the internet of things. (If you have a good idea, they’re offering prizes of up to $75,000).

How the internet of things develops in the years ahead shouldn’t be down to technologists alone, because it has implications for all of us, because we’ll all have to think and behave in new ways.

It’s therefore something we should, at least, be aware of, and a McKinsey report from 2010 is a good place to start. It’s the future of communications, but it’s already here.

Charlie Laidlaw is a director of David Gray PR and a partner in Laidlaw Westmacott. 

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