Photo by: Maggie Taplin

Five minutes with Su Jung Kim

Su Jung Kim joined the USC Annenberg faculty as an assistant professor this fall. A native of South Korea, Kim earned her Ph.D. from Northwestern University before doing postdoctoral work there, as well. She then became an assistant professor at the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University before moving on to USC. We sat down with her to learn a little more about her research into electronic word-of-mouth, her first impressions of USC Annenberg, and the evolving definition of “big data” and what it means in the world of communications.

What was it about USC Annenberg that made you want to join the faculty?

I asked one of my mentors, “What’s the most important thing for you when you’re choosing a new job?” He didn't even hesitate: “Working with smart people.” There are a lot of faculty members who are doing cutting-edge research here at Annenberg. So, that was number one. Number two is the connections the school has with industry here in Los Angeles. Number three is the emphasis on inclusion and diversity. As a person who’s coming from a different country, it’s important for me to have this sense of being included in a diverse community.

How has your classroom experience been so far?

I’m teaching one class right now: “Strategic Public Relations Research, Analysis and Insights.” I’ll teach two classes next semester. From day one, I was really impressed with how engaged everybody was and with the participation in class discussions. I use a lot of examples from new technology in advertising, PR and IMC [integrated marketing and communications]. For example, we talked about how consumers use wearable technologies and virtual assistants (e.g., Alexa). We also talked about how neuromarketing has been used to understand consumers’ responses to various advertising and marketing stimuli. The students have been asking very interesting and challenging questions. I’ve been very happy with my class here.

Tell us about your current research focus.

Broadly speaking, I’m really interested in audience behavior: how and why people use media and how people influence or are influenced by media. In particular, I’m researching how consumers are creating electronic word-of-mouth, interacting with other consumers and companies via digital media.

Online product reviews are one example of this. One study reports that about 90 percent of people read reviews before they make a purchase decision. But only a very small percentage of people write reviews. So, who are those people who are volunteering to write these reviews? What are some of their motivations? If it’s not incentivized, am I just doing it to help people, or to help my digital reputation? It brings in issues of image, identity and altruism. Not a lot of studies have been done yet about the review-writers themselves, so I’m really digging into that whole realm of the online consumer review ecosystem including review writers, readers, and review content itself. 

How would you define “big data” and how it applies in a communications context?

I first heard the term “big data” when I was doing my postdoc in about 2012-13. The earliest definitions were just about the size: massive data that traditional machines cannot handle. But that definition wasn’t really helpful. Eventually, people started talking about the “three Vs” of big data: volume, velocity and variety. The volume is obvious: These are massive data sets, terabytes or more of data. And the difference between traditional and big data is that all these gigantic data are compiled in seconds — that’s the velocity. Most of this data is unstructured, and can be from any source: image, text, video, sensory data — that’s the variety.

But just because you have this massive data doesn’t mean that it’s valuable. So, we’ve started to talk about a fourth V: veracity. As a researcher, you should be able to filter out noise from the data to extract real, concrete insights from it, whether you’re talking about communication, purchase decisions, healthcare, the stock market, you name it. 

What are your goals for the next few years?

In my classes, I want to make sure of two things: That everyone is enjoying themselves — including me — and that everyone feels welcomed. These are a must in order for any learning to happen. And because I’m teaching in the advertising, PR, marketing and communications space, I’m really going to try to connect what my students are learning in the classroom with how things are practiced in the industry. I’m also looking forward to learning other teaching ideas from the great faculty here. We have some professors with more academic backgrounds, and some with more professional backgrounds, so I have tons to learn from all of them.