Procuring communications technology can be a daunting and complicated process for even the most seasoned PR professionals as they try to make sense of the $4.1 billion industry. How can executives be sure they’re asking the right questions and getting the right services from technology partners?
1. Do your homework
Start by evaluating existing needs and pain points. What problem is the organization trying to solve? What technology could address this, or could simply improve productivity?
Ben Chodor, president of Intrado Digital Media, warns that solutions providers "sell platforms that frequently come with expensive add-ons and ‘nice to haves’ that can take demos off-track and confuse and frustrate potential clients."
Instead of getting distracted by the "shiny object," Chodor recommends entering an initial demo or call with a "checklist of specific needs and asking for a very customized, transparent overview of the technology." Platform providers are often willing to provide a free trial, which can give executives the opportunity to evaluate the technologies for themselves.
This is the practice used at Weber Shandwick. Brian Buchwald, head of global intelligence, explains that the firm’s team starts by considering the precise client challenge and creating a product plan using either in-house or third-party products.
"That particular plan is then weighed on a cost-benefit analysis against other products within our larger product roadmap of capabilities we wish to deliver to the market," he says. "This enables prioritization through a client-focused lens, while simultaneously balancing near-term and long-term focus."
2. Evaluate the product
Once a firm determines its needs, Chodor recommends asking the solutions provider what it does best or what is its specific area of strength, noting that it’s critical to purchase technology for a specific type of agency work.
"If you’re in B2B tech PR, it’s unhelpful to look at a consumer or lifestyle use case," Chodor says. "It’s like comparing apples to watermelons."
It is also important to understand what a product does, both to ensure it doesn’t replicate a service a firm already has in another tool in its stack and to understand how it differs from other products under consideration. Buyers should be transparent: Ask the vendor how its product differs from others so it can tailor a platform to best meet needs.
3. Conduct a cost-benefit analysis
Of course, price will also factor into the decision. Buyers will want to know the pricing model a vendor uses and not settle for "ranges, base fees or discounted rates for engaging within 30 days," Chodor warns. If a comms tech service is a significant investment but can dramatically increase employee productivity or efficiency, a higher rate could be worth it. That’s why Gregory Galant, CEO of Muck Rack and Shorty Awards parent Sawhorse Media, recommends asking a vendor, "How much time will I gain back in my day if I use this software?"
Cheaper isn’t always better. The point is to get the right product. At Weber, every potential purchase goes through several rungs before the agency engages a vendor. The product management organization works with engineering, data science and data vendor teams to analyze the landscape and the possible platforms.
"We measure the different players through the completeness of their solution, their willingness to custom-develop or co-develop as necessary and the business terms," Buchwald explains. "We then run potential vendors through technical diligence to ensure their product meets their promise. Finally, our vendor management team helps us negotiate a price and terms that work for us."
4. Know the service and features
It’s also not all about the product itself; the service matters, too. Customers should ask a prospective vendor how quickly they would respond to a question. Galant also suggests conducting blind references with existing clients and looking at case studies. And keep in mind that this is a long-term investment.
"Just about all PR vendors require buying an annual license, which means customers are not just buying what the software is today but also the promise of what it will become in the future," he says.
Customers should also ask solutions providers what features they are planning to roll out in the coming months and have released in the past year, as well as looking into their track record of shipping.
5. Read up on media monitoring and attribution
Sean O’Neal, president of Onclusive, predicts that the biggest technology investment that PR teams will make this year is in media monitoring and attribution. He identifies five key areas in this sector by which to assess a prospective vendor: proprietary technology, media crawling and data collection, sentiment analysis, PR attribution and attribution methodology.
It is important to determine whether a solutions provider undertakes each of these components in-house or contracts third-party sources. How and where the technology is built is important "because it reflects the company’s ability to innovate and stay ahead of critical changes in the digital media ecosystem," O’Neal says.
He also suggests determining whether a vendor operates and maintains its own media crawler or relies on third-party sources, as this will have an impact on the depth of analysis they can provide.
Sentiment analysis is another key component of media monitoring. "How does the vendor interpret the tone and sentiment of media articles? Do they rely on teams of humans, do they outsource the process to a third-party software or do they develop their own models?" O’Neal asks.
For PR attribution, O’Neal recommends understanding whether individual articles are linked to specific website actions or if attribution figures are determined at the campaign level.
"This is important because attribution is only meaningful if specific stories can be connected to individual outcomes. Otherwise, it’s just another vanity metric," he says.
Finally, O’Neal notes that understanding the attribution methodology is essential because "the numbers are only as credible as the means from which they were derived."
6. Keeping clients in mind
It’s extremely important to consider what clients are expecting. Kathryn Beiser, SVP and chief communications officer at Kaiser Permanente, notes that Kaiser looks at potential solutions through a holistic lens.
"Philosophically, we look at comms tech through a much broader, enterprise lens because web-based solutions often won’t be in just the communications silo," she says, adding that Kaiser wants partners that readily demonstrate their value proposition "not what they can do but what they have done for others like us."
For one, clients are looking for certainty, not a gamble, so they are more likely to be swayed by a product that has demonstrated its value. Kaiser is also looking to build lasting partnerships.
"For new relationships, we want to work with vendors who are willing to grow with us over time and invest in learning our business," Beiser says, meaning a vendor open to white labeling because Kaiser doesn’t "want another brand between us and our stakeholders."