What fantasy sports can teach you about PR measurement

I've been playing fantasy sports since 1993, when John Hunt first started writing about it for USAToday.

I've been playing fantasy sports since 1993, when John Hunt first started writing about it for USAToday. There were paid, mail-based services for calculating standings, but they cost more than 100 bucks per team, so that wasn't going to work for a high-school kid. There was no Internet then. There were also very few cool kids playing fantasy sports.

Instead, a bunch of nerds huddled around the high-school newspaper's Mac, running AppleWorks, the spreadsheet available on school computers. We'd take turns with the manual data entry, and several hours later, we'd learn who was leading that week. But it took so long to accomplish that we never really got to trading players, talking smack – the fun stuff. Given so much work and so little reward, each year, we would tire of data entry, the game would fall apart before summer started, and no one would know who did the best job at drafting a winning team.

Of course, that didn't keep us from making claims all year about who probably won.

This is where the PR industry was a few years ago. We knew what we had to do to get the data perspective we needed to measure our programs, but the difficulty of the process and lack of easy tools made the process too expensive for anything but larger, sophisticated campaigns.

Less than a decade after me and the high school nerds unwittingly equipped ourselves with accountant skills in the name of baseball, we were rewarded by those who equipped themselves with programming skills in the name of baseball, and online platforms that took all that data entry away. Now we could turn our analytical skills loose on the actual statistics, which was always the intended game.

This is where the PR industry is now. We finally have tools that make it so we don't have to spend all our time measuring, nor measuring the wrong things. We can focus on the action.

There are further points to be made about how fantasy sports convinced real-life baseball people to go Moneyball over hunch, and how Moneyball is convincing CEOs to turn to data rather than hunch, so suffice to say, we're way past the time when PR people could claim victory without stats to back it up. If you haven't already, it's time to step up to the plate. Here are a few things to remember as you take a swing.

1.    The team with the highest score total doesn't always win the trophy
Head-to-head fantasy sports orient the contest as a schedule of one-on-one matchups, each pitting you against one league mate. Winning each week is about putting in the time to assess your best options and take action in the context of real-life sports each week – injuries, difficulty of opponents, trends in performance. Winning any particular week is about understanding the context surrounding each professional player on your team, and the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent's team. Sometimes you put up a great score and lose your matchup anyway. And often, the team that wins the annual trophy isn't the one that scored the most points all year, it's the one who scored them at the right times. Likewise, in PR, we face the ebb and flow of media focus. And similarly, winning is not about getting the most clips, quotes, or even clicks in a year – it's getting them from the right people at the right time.

2.    Pre-season projections are just snapshots of educated guesses
Millions of dollars are spent by fantasy players to purchase preseason projections of player performance. There's a mountain of raw sports data available - more each year - and the data analysis tools get better every year. Guess what? The fantasy projections aren't becoming much more accurate, and because everybody has cheap access to the tools, access to data kit is no particular advantage. The players who put in the brain time win. True data-driven decision-making in both the geek sports sphere and PR is characterized by being willing to change course from initial strategy and adapt earlier than your adversaries, because you're continually analyzing data. You win because you've spotted a quantitative trend, or because you seize upon a more meaningful measure of success.

3.    Don't forget to watch the ballgame
Stat totals and aggregated measures don't show you everything in fantasy sports. Averages and medians obscure the day-to-day story of a baseball player. If a player starts the year in an 0-for-20 slump but then becomes the hottest batter in the league, you won't find out about it until he's put together quite a hitting streak, if you're just watching his average for the year. He could get hits in every other at-bat over his next 20 and he'll still look like he's not hitting the league average and if you're only watching the totals, you'll relegate him to your bench. Similarly, if you're not watching the day-to-day performance against your message competitors, another company could go on a streak that changes your client's year. Relying only on the YTD stat sheet, you're missing a lot of the story.

Ian Lipner is VP at Lewis PR.

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