How do you balance real-time data demands with accuracy and flexibility?

The most important step to achieving balance is basic and fundamental: ensure all communications, customer outreach, and marketing research strategies are tied to achieving specific business objectives.

Jason Forget, Corporate reputation manager, GE Energy

Sami Jajeh, Principal, Arketi Group

Heidi Sullivan, VP, global media research, Cision

Terry Villines, SVP of analysis, PhaseOne

Mark Weiner, CEO, Prime Research

Jason Forget, corporate reputation manager, GE Energy:
The most important step to achieving balance is basic and fundamental: ensure all communications, customer outreach, and marketing research strategies are tied to achieving specific business objectives.

By understanding and strategically planning execution and research activities toward specific business goals, we stand the best chance to achieve accuracy. We ask the right questions in traditional survey research and traditional media listening while discovering the right feedback in "unstructured" data, such as social media discussions, efficiently.

Focusing on business objectives won't cause you to miss emerging trends with which businesses could potentially engage. In fact, being engaged in research led by business objectives has allowed me to see some of the emerging trends and conversations, especially in social media, while also giving me the appropriate business filter to quickly determine whether or not it's something the business can take advantage of quickly.

Seeing and understanding emerging trends and conversations is important. Understanding which of those the organization is capable of quickly and effectively engaging in - and which it is not - is more crucial.

Flexibility is achieved by using the right set of research tools in the right way. Use social and traditional media monitoring, such as traditional focus groups, and listen in real time to get a directional sense of how you're doing. Your sales teams should be doing the same with your customers face to face. Use these insights to develop traditional survey research, such as flash polling. This helps bring structure and segmentation to the unstructured nature of online conversation. Follow up with traditional focus groups to go deep with audience segments you care most about.

By doing this regularly and baking the lessons into communications activities, you have a recipe for success.

Sami Jajeh, principal, Arketi Group:
Everyone wants more insight into customers, but few are willing to commit the resources required. E-surveying has simplified research, but it is not a panacea to understanding buyers' wants.

Strategies that can help balance the need for real-time research with the accuracy and flexibility an organization demands include:

  • Don't boil the ocean. Too often, marketing pros get so caught up in the statistical significance of research that they can keep themselves from doing any at all. Even a simple 10- to 15-minute phone survey of six to 10 clients can provide tremendous insight. It may only be directional feedback, but wouldn't you rather have customers pointing you in the direction?
  • Use event-driven research. Instead of focusing only on the annual satisfaction survey or a big study, send out routine requests for feedback from customers at critical junctures. For example, every time a project is completed, send out a two- to three-question survey for some feedback. Over time, you will build a wealth of research feedback, including trending data. One best practice is to send out a two-question Net Promoter Score questionnaire at the end of each "transaction" to know how you are trending with customer loyalty.
  • Get everyone involved in research. One strategy for receiving customer insight is to have the entire executive team call customers and get feedback. Customers will be delighted to have the attention and senior management will get a newfound respect for listening to the voice of the customer. With the results in, invite everyone to a meeting where you reveal findings and ask them to brainstorm what the organization should do with this rich customer insight.

Heidi Sullivan, VP, global media research, Cision:
Working in a time of big data and real-time news, it can be a challenge to ensure we have the most accurate information to perform jobs well. Today, however, there are more tools than ever to extract insights on this data to determine what communities are trying to tell us, what mentions are most important, and how we can optimize messages.

By embracing data-driven communications and not focusing exclusively on speed, we can stop working on the "I thinks" and start working smarter. Engagement metrics from tweets and Facebook "likes" to Web analytics including unique visitors, geo-based data, and text analysis can tell us about the nature of online dialogue, the influencers who are driving perceptions and changing opinions, messages, and the future of businesses.

PR pros can save time - and make the right decisions - by using tools that help identify influencers, monitor both traditional media and the social Web, and analyze those results. These tools enable you to truly focus time and attention on ensuring decisions are based on accurate data and the in-depth insights that come from it. Web analytics, engagement metrics, sentiment analysis, location-based data, and more can help better target messages and measure results quickly.

Along with using the right tools, it's also important for PR pros and marketers to be flexible and to be able to assess what tools need to be used to retrieve the appropriate kind of data in any particular situation.

In summary, flexibility and accuracy are not incompatible with real-time decision-making. Emerging metrics, tools, and best practices let you act quickly and intelligently to make insights based on the massive amount of real-time content you track.

Terry Villines, SVP of analysis, PhaseOne:
In the not too distant past, real-time data meant waiting three or more weeks to get any feedback on how well a campaign was working. Today, depending on the campaign, feedback can come in a matter of minutes. More competition, business complexity, segmented customers, global markets, new distribution channels, product proliferation, new communications vehicles, and any number of other external factors have now put the demand for instant data high on the priority list to justify programs, budgets, and jobs.

However, it's important to keep in mind that marketers need to use real-time data to make smart decisions and not let the data decide for them. With a steady, overwhelming stream of information, it's easy to get caught up in making decisions strictly based on the data. Strategy and communication platforms take time to develop and need to be created from solid learnings about the market, target audience, and competition, not data gathered from a click of a button.

Real-time feedback is best used to fine tune tactics, not for creating overarching strategies on the fly. Technology allows us the flexibility to make adjustments in creative executions, but it should not be the driver to change strategies too easily. It does however allow us to evaluate the ROI, not only on the overall campaign, but each individual tactic. It also provides the insights to make ongoing adjustments.

Today, there's immense pressure and scrutiny by senior management to improve the overall business of the organization and the return on the brand's marketing investment. Chasing numbers can lead to sales, but does not necessarily support the building of a brand. It's not an either-or choice, but  how the data is used is just as important as what it is used for.

Mark Weiner, CEO, Prime Research:
Real-time solutions depend on software automation. Unfortunately, instantaneous information doesn't allow for verification, validation, or correction. And while consistent, automated systems don't match human ability to dissect content with flexibility, subtlety, or a high degree of accuracy.

Conversely, human analysis may be accurate, responsive, and intuitive, but it tends to be slower and less consistent than machines. Humans understand nuance, sarcasm, and sentiment - communication attributes by which computers are challenged.

Surprisingly, one solution isn't necessarily more expensive than the other.

For rumors or social media, the lower accuracy and insight levels of automation may suffice for immediate tactical responses. For strategic decisions, however, the equilibrium shifts toward human precision and insight in exchange for a few hours or even a few days.

The technology for real time exists, but the ability among executives to process and act upon data in real time does not. In most cases, the critical question is not "How do we accelerate information?" but rather "How do we accelerate the right decisions?"

Executives need to work with trusted research consultants to help set objectives, develop priorities, and identify which circumstances require accuracy, which data support insight, and which conditions demand speed. Based on this foundation, the ideal partner can create alerts, produce reports, and deliver research-based consulting to inform decisions on a wide range of situations. Ideal research solutions make the most important information available at the time of need, not the speed of light.

Speed, accuracy, and insight are each important, but only become the priority under specific business conditions and only for certain types of information. Since priorities can change so rapidly, a particular organization might need every combination. As such, the ability to handle every situation with dexterity is the fundamental criterion.

The Takeaway

  • Making sure research is intertwined with business goals is the best way to ensure results are valued and actionable. 
  • Research work needs focus and consistency. Don't try to cover all the bases in one effort.
  • Data must be evaluated with marketplace insights such as competition and target audience to be valuable. 

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