Looking back on a year of Data Driven Communications

Just over a year ago, I took on the role of Director of Analytics & Insights at NATIONAL Public Relations. It's been a fun ride so far as I moved from a strategy and planning role - into a more focused discipline of fostering Data Driven Communications for one of the largest PR firms in the country.

It's no shock to anybody that the field of communications and marketing as a whole is in dire need of "data driven" decision making, not at the agency level, but at the client level, and that's what makes the job a fun one. Everyone wants to be data driven, but when you don't work at the company you're consulting for, the road from "gut instinct" to "data driven" is a long and disciplined one. This past year has given me a lot of clarity into what it takes to go from the beginning of the beginning to the beginning of the middle of this journey, and I'm going to break it down for y'all in three easy (not quite) steps:

1. Establish a Challenge

Well before I started working in PR, I worked in Systems Integration and believe it or not, clients on the IT side have the same unique problem that brand managers and comms managers have. Lots of challenges, and lots of solutions, with no clear idea of which one to choose.

Establishing the RIGHT challenge is step 1, and is not as easy as you'd think to identify. 9.9 Out of 10 times that I ask someone what their challenge is, the answer is "Generate Awareness of my widget or issue". Our job as consultants (regardless of whether you're in analytics, technology, comms, etc. is to peel this onion skin back, and figure out the WHY. Why do we want awareness? Are we trying to sell more of that widget? Are we trying to be louder than someone else? What's the real reason you need me in this room right now?

A fun trick a colleague of mine taught me a few years ago is to ask why five times. Five layers deep into a question and you'll get your 'raison d'etre'. It might be annoying, but in the end, it'll be worth it. I promise. Here's an example of this in action:

Q1: Why do we want awareness?
A1: We need more people to know about this issue

Q2: Which people?
A2: People that are involved in making decisions about ______

Q3: What do you want them to do once they're aware? What kind of decision should they make?
A3: We want them to stop petitioning / We want them to start petitioning

Q4: What do you believe would make them start / stop?
A4: If they knew about ______ at a deeper level, they'd start / stop

Q5: What do they currently know?

This may or may not be exactly the questioning path you want to take, but either way, it gets us into a better position to act strategically, and most importantly, allows us to identify what data we need to equip ourselves with to identify the real challenge.

In this case - the real challenge may be:
"How do we target, inform and request action from, ______ types of people"

2. Identify the Opportunity

From here, we could use Google Trends to identify the level of knowledge that people might have about an issue, use that information to make content recommendations, and then use media data from platforms like Sysomos to help determine where there's a current content gap in the market (I can write about how this is done in a different blog post).

3. Establish a Plan

We presumably now empirically know three key things:

  1. What this audience is looking for (based on search data - monthly searches for specific terms)
  2. Where they're talking (channels and frequency of discussion)
  3. What's missing in their conversation (number of available articles on the subject matter)

We can use this data to propose a plan that elevates the discussion by creating new content, putting it in the right channels, and seeing if we change the frequency of those searches, or if those existing searches find our content (using Paid, Earned and Owned media).

Now we're all set up for execution, but I'm gonna skip that one and go straight to the actual "data driven" part with..

4. Measure Your Efforts

If you've been working from your plan, your measurement is pretty easy at this point:

  1. Of all the searches - how often are you showing up?
  2. Of all the conversations - how often are you part of them?
  3. Of those who have read your content - how many took the action you wanted them to take?

This is a really oversimplified measurement framework, but the point of this whole post is just this. Data Driven comms is not your research, it's not your plan, it's not your outcomes. It's the whole frame. Of all the work I've done in the past year, projects that held tight to this framework have performed exceptionally well. Working closely with the whole project team to make sure we were answering the right challenge, challenging that challenge with data, using that same data to find opportunities, and then using that same data to measure our success, this is what it's all about.

2017 is coming up. So remember - being data driven is nothing new, but it's not an afterthought. For every challenge on your plate, ask yourself five killer questions, find your data and stick by it.

Looking back on a year of Data Driven Communications
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