Using Big Data to Predict the Next Blockbuster
If all goes according to plan, Meghan Croxton, MS '14, may soon know what blockbuster movie you want to see even before you do.
Croxton sees herself working in entertainment, but not as a filmmaker, stagehand, or television host. Instead, she wants to use what she is learning as a student in the first class of the master of science in business analytics program to understand and predict trends in the entertainment industry.
Croxton says she grew up torn between her love of numbers and film, which makes her an ideal match for the quantitative-qualitative split required of an analyst.
"I joke that I love math because it's the same in every country," says Croxton, whose appreciation for universality may stem from having already traveled to more than 20 countries and spending nearly four years in China as a child.
But her interests were never confined to the "black and white" world of math.
"I love the expression and creativity of film; it's what drew me in," she says. "It's a hard industry to work in, but everyone is so passionate about what they’re doing."
As an undergraduate at UT, Croxton honored both her artistic and analytic selves, majoring in radio, television and film while earning a minor in math and a Business Foundations Program certificate.
After stints in film finance, marketing, and event planning and even a turn in the director's chair for three short films and a short documentary, she landed at McCombs in search of a way to use math that would also flex her creative muscles. The new business analytics degree allows her to do just that.
"There's that phrase, 'Find a job you love and you never work a day in your life.' That's what this is for me," Croxton says.
In film or analytics, it's all about story
Hillary Patterson, business analytics program coordinator, explains that people like Croxton who can bring creativity to the job, will be the most successful. She says that Big Data requires people who can slice and dice data sets with strong programming and math skills, and then use their findings to tell a story creatively.
"It's that ability to tell a story that gets a corporate person to sit up and go 'Oooh,'" adds Hasler.
Large corporations are already taking notice, including Deloite and Walmart, both founding sponsors of the new graduate degree. Companies across industries are clamoring to use today's massive amounts of available information to understand what keeps customers loyal to a brand and to predict and influence future behavior, says Mike Hasler, director of the program and lecturer in the Department of Information, Risk, and Operations Management.
Croxton and the 51 other students in the inaugural class will learn programming, statistics, finance, and marketing. (To learn about some of Croxton's classmates, see our story "Meet Four Analytical Thinkers from McCombs' New Grad Program.") In mock boardrooms and in the program's capstone projects, students will present their findings in visual and creative pitches. Deloitte and Walmart have both provided real-world data sets for the students to work with.
"The reason why this has become a hot thing is the fact that now the data sets are huge and we now have the computing power to do the analytics," Hasler says.
With that potential, managers are under pressure to use all that data in their decision making, and to find the people capable of recognizing the story that data tells. An estimated 1.5 million new data-savvy managers will be needed by 2018, according to a 2011 McKinsey Global Institute study.
Hasler says he has already had conversations about the program with companies including Google, Facebook, IBM, and Chevron.
"All of whom have said, 'Tell us when the people are graduating. Give us their names now; we'll give them internships before classes start.'"
From big data to mega hits
Croxton may have a gamut of industries to choose from but she doesn't want to abandon her media roots. Upon graduation, she plans to work as a consultant for the entertainment industry and use analytics to tailor marketing campaigns. She'll sift through information collected from social media and television and film streaming websites to better predict which movies and television shows will be successful.
Online movie and television-streaming company Netflix is already putting the data collected from its nearly 30 million subscribers to good use. Thanks to tracking those subscribers' viewing habits closely, the company knew it had a hit when it created a Washington D.C.-based version of the British series, "House of Cards." Hiring a popular director and actors and then previewing different trailers to subscribers based on their interests resulted in a binge-viewed, Emmy-nominated smash.
"Netflix almost knows their audience more than the audience knows themselves," Croxton says.
"House of Cards" is an eye-opening case study, and one that couldn't have existed even a few years ago. It might also become irrelevant just as quickly. "They say whatever we learn this year will be ancient next year," Croxton jokes.
She doesn't know if the changing media landscape will ultimately be positive or negative, but one thing is certain: the companies—and employees—who take advantage of the data will probably figure it out before those that don't.