Do you remember your very first time? No, not that first time. I’m talking about the first time you received a relevant recommendation of something to buy or read online?

Remember how that felt? It was like that Web site really knew you?

As for me, I remember it well. I remember the struggle of finding the right Christmas gifts for my preschool-age son. I tromped and trudged through Target and Walmart and, yes, Toys R Us. But how would I know which toys would actually appeal?

Enter Amazon. My hero. Amazon gently took me by the hand and nicely produced a list of suggested toys by age and gender. I purchased several of the items from the list and marveled on Christmas morning how much my son loved his toys.

After that, I was hooked. Each year, Amazon sent me a list of toy suggestions for my son. (Remember, now they knew how old he was, too.) I happily pointed and clicked. I never had to grace the doors of Target, Toys R Us, or Walmart, because Amazon told me what my son would like and delivered it right to my door.

Little did I realise that Amazon’s perfect suggestions were based on my data and that of thousands of others.

Jeff Bezos is brilliant. Very few people seem to argue with this. Media from around the world have waited and watched to see what his first major move would be after purchasing The Washington Post last fall.

Rumors circulated! Would Bezos shut down the presses? Would he come up with an entirely new digital subscription platform? How would the more than 100-year-old newspaper change with Bezo’s influence?

Newspaper employees around the globe did not expect Bezos to “help” the industry by giving away WaPo content to subscribers of other newspapers. I’m sure by now you all know how the programme works. The Washington Post gives print subscribers of other news brands “free” access to Post content.

To offer this free content to their subscribers, news companies must sign up to be part of the programme, then send WaPo their subscriber files and promote the new programme. It’s a simple turn-key solution to give newspapers around the country a way to offer their subscribers even more information at no additional cost.

More than 100 different newspapers have signed up for this programme. Maybe even yours.

But what is really behind the WaPo content sharing plan? The official Washington Post stance is: “To expose The Post to a wider audience than ever before and boost the appeal of subscription services offered by the partner newspapers,” Washington Post President Stephen P. Hills wrote on the Post’s public relations blog.

Sure, this viewpoint is absolutely true; this content sharing programme will certainly expose a wider audience to Washington Post content.

The key word in Hills’ comments is “audience.”

I recently spoke with Dr. Nitesh Chawla, The University of Notre Dame’s Professor of Big Data and founder of Big Data company Aunalytics, who predicted Bezo’s direction with Washington Post last August in his article, “Why newspapers need big data now.”  

Chawla predicted:

“Consumers will see personalisation of content and targeted advertisements; relevant information will be matched to consumers seeking information; relevant recommendations will be served at the right time; and consumers will see ‘people like me’ also read this or respond to a given message.

“The Post will drive up revenue of its digital platform because of an enhanced pool of more loyal and engaged consumers. Further, advertisers will see value-added propositions via targeted content and messaging to the consumer and deeper consumer understanding will drive diversified revenue streams.” 

I asked Chawla what he thought of the Washington Post’s content-sharing programme and if my newspaper should participate. He said while the content sharing programme was compelling, as a national newspaper, it would also help enable Washington Post to have more exposure about the hyper-local audience data. His advice was to get strategic about our own data and audience engagement.

The Washington Post even recently published an article citing the importance of data in advertising. In it, author Bryan Kennedy writes: “Data-driven marketing eliminates waste and inefficiency in advertising, along with the clutter of potentially unwelcome, irrelevant advertising.”

It’s time media companies start to value the data they produce. We should be as cautious about giving away our data as we would be about giving away baskets of cash. In other words, don’t do it.

In the not-so-distant future, data will be king, and media companies are poised to be major players in the data-driven world. If only we remain smart enough to recognise all the seemingly innocent plays to get at our Big Data pie.

So, where do the rest of us start? Where does your Big Data journey begin?

Recently, my company, the South Bend Tribune, had its first “Big Data” day. Kim Wilson, our president and publisher, invited two local Big Data companies to speak. Each of our departments was represented at the Big Data day, and it was fascinating to see how each department held different pieces of the data pie.

We heard a lot of, “Wow, I didn’t know we had that!”

Later, I sought out and spoke with one of the Big Data speakers, Rich Carlton, president and chief operating officer of Data Realty. He told me our “Big Data day” changed the way his company goes to business. He said having all of the different functional departments in the room at the same time helped create cross-company buy-in that helps move data Big Data projects forward.

Carlton proposed media companies approach their entry into Big Data with the simple phrase, “If I only knew X, I could do Y.” Each department is likely to have a different version of this question, but it is a great starting point.

Next, gather all of the available information stored in databases around your news company. Identify the gaps. What information do you need but don’t have? Think about where you can get it.

It will be important to find a way to assimilate all of the disparate databases into one organic system that will create “one record” for each consumer or advertiser.

Next, employ algorithms to provide insights that will allow you to take action. Go back to your original “If I only knew X, I could do Y.”

For example, “If I only knew which subscribers were likely to leave us, I could find a way to send them the right retention piece before they left.” Or, from an advertising perspective, “If I only knew which readers were interested in buying a car, I could deliver the right audience to Ford.”

Big Data requires Big Thinking and the willingness to admit we don’t even know what we don’t know yet. Those first steps will be the toughest, because it’s unfamiliar territory, but if you take the “go forth and conquer” approach, you’ll reap the rewards.

Remember the success that my son, Amazon, and I all enjoyed thanks to Big Data? Now, project that formula for success on your company, your advertisers, and your customers.