Thursday, December 18, 2014

What Big Data Is (From a PR and Communications Perspective) and Why It Matters

As many of you know, I’ve been studying Big Data and how PR and communications people are (or are not) using it.Today, it seems, the most common way we are using it is to spot trends in social media so we can react to them. While this is useful, I don't believe it to be what is most important about Big Data for communications.

However, I find many folks are confused about what, exactly, Big Data is.

What Is Big Data?
According to Wikipedia:

Big data is an all-encompassing term for any collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using on-hand data management tools or traditional data processing applications.

While that definition is good, it is not particularly useful for communications people. Assuming the work of communicators is to persuade and manage relationships with stakeholders, I think it’s more useful to think of Big Data as burgeoning amounts of data on stakeholder behavior.

Now I will paraphrase Wikipedia:

People and organizations are creating and using these larger data sets, because they can derive new and useful insights by combining a number of individual smaller data sets into one large data set. This allows users to apply statistical and other search tools to the combined database to “spot business trends, prevent diseases, combat crime and so on.”

Where Is Big Data Coming From?
The individual data bases that are being combined into Big-Data type databases are coming from a number of places. Here are some of them:

Traditional sources, such as:

·      Government data (e.g. broad demographics, voting records)
·      Product warranty forms (e.g. names, addresses)

Newer sources, such as:

·      Retail store loyalty cards (e.g. purchase history, household demographics, total spending, seasonal spending, media purchases)
·      Credit cards (e.g. purchase history, household demographics)
·      Health care records (e.g. ailments, prescription history, treatment history)

Online sources, such as:

·      Internet activity (e.g. browsing history [favorite sites and media], purchases, sites from which purchases are made)
·      Facebook (e.g. comments, likes, timelines)
·      Smart phones (e.g. shopping, travel patterns, localities)
·      Cars (e.g. travel patterns)
·      Smart houses (e.g. when you're home, household appliances you have)
·      Personal health monitoring (e.g. exercise habits, factors suggesting overall health)
·      Records of personal interactions (such as a conversation at your door with a political representative. While this kind of interaction would be considered traditional, recording notes from the conversation and putting them into a database is new)

There are undoubtedly many more sources of data and kinds of information that can be drawn from the sources above that I do not know about. 
Why Does Big Data Matter To PR and Communications
As a consumer this is all a bit scary. But, from a communications perspective, it hints at the extraordinary power Big Data can have in helping organizations determine:

·      What products and services to bring to customers and clients
·      What to say about these products and services to encourage people to try them
·      How to fine tune the selection of media to reach potential users with pinpoint accuracy 

While these questions are oriented toward sales and marketing, Big Data can be used to address similar policy and operations questions for shareholders, employees, communities and other stakeholders.

When we consider customers alone, it is quite clear the insights Big Data can provide can be critical to successful communications. However, when we add in the total mix of stakeholders and the importance of balancing the wants and needs of each in order to ensure the organization succeeds in the long run, Big Data becomes an even more important source of potential insight for policy and communications. Those organizations that understand Big Data and how to use it are consistently demonstrating they have a competitive advantage over those that do not. (According to a 2013 Bain & Company report, companies “with the most advanced analytics capabilities are outperforming competitors by wide margins.”)

I expect that communicators who understand Big Data and how to use it will have a similar competitive advantage, especially in those organizations already using Big Data in their business operations.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Potential Value of Big Data to PR and Communications

This Blog is adapted from a comment I made on an IABC LinkedIn Discussion on Big Data, which was initiated by Natasha Nicholson. I am also indebted to comments in that discussion by Mike Jenkins and Sam Ford.

In my mind, the promise of Big Data for PR is in planning successful communications campaigns.

However, I am concerned that communications professionals are not well prepared to use Big Data. They face a number of challenges. Some are database management challenges--making the data accurate, making it inclusive and making it represent what it purports to represent. Beyond these challenges are those of coaxing meaning from the data, which are data analysis and statistical issues. For the most part, I do not believe these skills exist in communications departments or consultancies, with the possible exception of research departments.

What communications people should be able to do is ask the right questions of the data. I believe these should start with the basic questions of business and communications such as:
  • Who are my stakeholders?
  • What do they care about and why?
  • What messages are likely to resonate with them?
  • What are the best media for reaching those stakeholders with those messages?
  • What trends and issues matter to these stakeholders that may have an effect on how and how well I can communicate with them?
My last bulleted question is sometimes addressed by the folks monitoring media. So, at least we are doing that.

To summarize, I believe communications people understand communications and the questions that need to be answered to communicate effectively. However, to use Big Data to inform and drive successful communications campaigns, they need also to understand and be conversant in database management, data analysis and statistics. Beyond being conversant, they need people who can actually do these things to answer the communications questions the communicators pose.

We know that the Obama campaign effectively used Big Data to help win the presidency in 2012, but beyond that, proof points for Big Data's use and effectiveness in PR and communications are sparse, to say the least.

I expect that the first organizations to actually use Big Data effectively outside of politics will be large, well funded organizations that actually value communications and its effect on reputation (think Fortune 100 here). They will have the communications expertise and the influence to be able to draw on the database management and data analysis and statistical skills elsewhere in their organizations to put together the whole package necessary to make Big Data work for stakeholder relationship management.

Until then, what I believe communicators should do to prepare themselves to use Big Data is develop an analytical mindset. They need to start asking the questions above as well as other questions of the data they have access to. First and foremost, this would be the data in their organizations from such places as marketing, sales and HR. If their organization is using data resources in other parts of their business (for example risk management), they should learn how that data is being used and try to think of ways they might be able to adapt it to use in communications (e.g. Sam Ford's suggestions in "4 Ways to Use Data to Tell Stories," in IABC's Communications World Magazine.

For those of you who already have access to Big Data, I suggest you think analytically, jump in and swim. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The importance of doing research before diving into social media

Before jumping into social media do general research to determine which social (and traditional) media are most appropriate for your target audience. Check out the article I wrote for the Measurement Standard:

Thursday, May 29, 2014

How To Link Communications to Your Organization's Business Goals and Objectives (Part II: Evaluating Your Success Against Your Goal)

How To Link Communications to Your Organization's Business Goals and Objectives (Part II: Evaluating Your Success Against Your Goal)

In my last Blog I wrote about how to set measurable communications objectives that are linked to the business goals of your organization.  In this Blog I will outline how to evaluate the success of your program against your communications objectives.

As you will recall, our business goal was sales, and the measurable communications goal we derived to support sales was:
  • Increase awareness of the product by 10%
    • Among U.S. women (or women in a specified market)
    • With children five-years old and younger
    • Household incomes of $80,000 to $150,000
  • Within six months
Measuring An Outtake Goal
To measure your success, you would want to do a pre- and post-campaign survey of the target audience as defined above to determine the change in awareness before and after the campaign. In the best of all worlds you would do this survey by telephone. To reduce costs, you could buy one or two questions in a reputable omnibus survey, such as the one done by Opinion Research, and have them cut the data to represent the target audience definition. This should only cost you a few thousand dollars per question.

"A survey!" I hear some of you saying. "Those are expensive. What about our media and content analysis service. Can't we evaluate using that?"

Measuring An Output Goal
Yes, you can, but it takes you one step further from the business goal you are trying to support. Our business goal is increase sales; this is what we in measurement call an outcome goal. Our communications goal is increase awareness among the target audience by 10% within six months;.this is what we call an outtake goal. If we have not the budget or for some other reason cannot measure awareness, we can step down to how you expect to achieve the communications goal and create an output goal.

In this case we assume that if we get coverage in traditional, digital or social media that we know reach our target audience, that some part of our target audience will see the coverage, become aware of our product as a result and buy it. These are all fair assumptions, but, as you can see, we're getting to be a number of assumptions away from the business goal. Our output goal might be some number of impressions that carry our message in the media we know reach our target audience. To measure our success, we then need to monitor those media and evaluate the coverage to ensure that it actually carries our message points. It also is useful to determine how much competitive coverage is mixed in with ours. For example, are we in a round up story including all the competitors? If so, how did we come out? Is it a feature story only on us? Obviously, these would be rated differently in terms of the success of the output.

Getting Your Media Analysis Vendor To Provide What You Really Need
One of the problems many media analysis vendors have is they do not understand PR very well, and they do not know how to articulate output objectives that support communications (outtake or business objectives. Consequently, when they set up their programs for clients, they end up measuring the wrong things and their measures have limited usefulness in assessing the success of campaigns. If you as a practitioner can make explicit what the business, communications (outtake) and output goals are, you will be in a strong position to demand from your vendor that she provide metrics that enable you to evaluate your output. If she cannot, find another vendor who can. There are good ones out there.

Measuring By Activity
Now to the lone practitioner who has virtually no budget. I meet these folks regularly. They want to demonstrate their value to their clients, but their clients have budgets so small that any kind of external evaluation is out of the question. In these cases I still suggest research, but it is the up front research that should drive all PR. Identify the target audience for the business goal, determine through further research the kind of message that is likely to persuade that target audience to behave in the way that will enable the business to achieve its goal and identify the media that will reach that target audience. Unfortunately, with limited resources the research to do this may not be as sophisticated as we would like. Much of it may come from those who are in contact with customers. Perhaps the practitioner can talk to some customers herself to find out why they buy and how they find out about the product.

But once that is done, set some specific targets. For example, if your research suggests your target reads some specific trade magazines (traditional or digital) and blogs, make a list of them and make your goal be to get your client's product mentioned in six (or some other reasonable number) of these media venues in the next six months. Make this agreement with your client.

Here, too, you might be able to get unique URL in the material you place, which would give you an actual link to behavior in the form of web site visits that would lead to achieving your client's business goal.

What's Stopping You?
So, it can be done. The only thing that's really stopping most practitioners is the fear that measurement will show they have not achieved their objective. That's just unprofessional. How will you ever get any better at your profession if you don't regularly assess how well you're doing?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

How To Link Communications to Your Organization's Business Goals and Objectives (Part I: Setting Goals)

How To Link Communications to Your Organization's Business Goals and Objectives (Part I: Setting Goals)

According to research done by Jim Sinkinson, publisher of The Bulldog Reporter, one reason PR practitioners have trouble adhering to the Barcelona Principles is they don't know how to set measurable objectives. Another is they have trouble tying their results to corporate strategic objectives.

In my next two Blogs, I'll outline how to do both.

For reference, I wrote a paper with Linda Hadley on this topic for the Institute of Public Relations Commission on Measurement and Evaluation back in 1999. David Rockland, Mark Weiner and I updated that paper in 2010.

Tying Communications Results to Corporate Objectives
To tie communications results to corporate objectives, you need to start with corporate objectives. These might be:
  • Increase sales
  • Increase share price 
  • Reduce employee turnover
  • Reduce supplier costs
  • Etc.
Sometimes you can tie a communications campaign directly to a business result. But this is unusual because communications is usually only a part of what makes behavior happen. In sales, for example, price, supply, shelf placement, advertising, promotion, competition and many other factors affect a sale. With share price, management's business model and strategy must be solid, no matter how good the communication. With employee turnover, research I have done suggests an employee's immediate supervisor has a much greater effect on retaining that employee than does communications. Some sophisticated organizations are using marketing modeling programs to assess the effect of PR on sales. You can find a paper on that here.

Unique Internet Links
Another way to tie communications directly to business outcomes in our online world is to include unique links for actions. For example if you can get a "for more information" link in the material you place, make it go to a unique page. Then you can not only get credit for the information request, but you may also be able to track the person who made the request on to sales. 

The Communications Goal Link
Though we can rarely tie the effect of communications directly to achieving a business goal, we can articulate a communications goal that supports the business goal your organization is trying to achieve. Some useful questions to ask before coming up with the communications goal are:
  • Who is the target stakeholder group
  • What does the organization want this group to do (what behavior does it seek)
  • By when must this be accomplished

A Measurable Communications Goal
Let's take our first business goal as an example: Increase sales. What will increase sales depends very much on what you are selling, who you are selling it to and the general sales environment. But generally speaking, communications might help sales by increasing awareness of the product and its features. By doing homework with the sales and marketing people in your organization and by doing research on your target audience, you should be able to identify the primary barriers to sales and come up with a communications objective that should help achieve the business objective of sales. Let's say that in this case the communications goal that will support increasing sales is:
  • Increase awareness of the product.
However, that's a bit broad. A better communications goal would include a tighter definition of the target audience. Increasing awareness of the product among people who will never buy it would be wasted effort. If our sales target is U.S. women with children five-years old and younger and with household incomes of $80,000 to $150,000, we should include that in our objective. We should also note the time frame. Finally, we should put a stake in the ground and say how much we are going to increase awareness.

So a good communications goal that supports our business goal would be:
  • Increase awareness of the product by 10%
  • Among U.S. women (or women in a specified market)
    • With children five-years old and younger
    • Household incomes of $80,000 to $150,000
  • Within six months

Management Agreement On Goals
You also want to get agreement from your management that this is indeed an acceptable communications goal. Then, when you achieve it, there will be no question about whether you had done the right thing.

Do Research So You Actually Achieve Your Goal
Note, too, that you need to develop a message that appeals to and use media that reach the defined target audience. If you want to succeed, you will need to determine what these are. You may be able to get this information from your marketing and sales people, but you may need to do your own research.

Measuring Success Agains Goals
Next week I will Blog about how to measure your success against your goals.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Evidence from Ad Age that PR Gets Big Data and Analytics

Finally actual evidence from Ad Age that PR agencies understand some of the real potential for big data and analytics:

Though the article doesn't say it, this also suggests small agencies without advertising parents will be at a distinct disadvantage as the agencies with such parents become sophisticated at using the data to which they have access.