Inching ever closer to 2021, Dashboard asked communications technology experts for their eureka moments from this most unusual and difficult year.
COVID-19 and the consequent stay-at-home orders throughout much of the country undoubtedly had an impact on the way PR pros work and communicate with consumers on behalf of their clients or brands. Yet some of the biggest learnings had nothing to do with the pandemic, resulting more from advances in technology, the coming of age of Gen Z and the 2020 presidential election.
Here are the experts’ biggest comms tech learnings of 2020.
Data, but more broadly
Data shouldn’t just be an afterthought, used simply to support your results, argues Dara Busch, president of 5WPR.
“Utilizing this information proactively allows you to construct a stronger plan based on past outcomes, as well as research into competitor analysis, consumer conversations and more,” she says. “Looking closely at data can reveal weaknesses in a strategy and signal you to shift focus and resources from areas that aren’t performing to the initiatives that have delivered the most.”
FleishmanHillard’s teams observed just how important data is in taking the guesswork out of media relations. The Omnicom Group firm’s staffers use data-driven media maps to do just that.
“[The firm can] triangulate between what we know of target audiences, the messages clients want to deliver to those audiences and the information we are able to distill from our relationships and analysis of public content by media journalists or online influencers,” says Natasha Kennedy, global MD of True Global Intelligence at Fleishman.
It’s not enough to simply acquire the data. Mary Elizabeth Germaine, partner and MD at Ketchum Analytics, argues for more data integration.
“Taking a 360-degree look at stakeholders, culture and categories has become even more important,” she says. “The most impactful campaigns are those that look through a number of lenses to arrive at the most relevant strategic platform.”
Ultimately, according to Naimul Huq, director of data and analytics at Precision, “communications agencies without a data and analytics practice can’t keep up.”
Brand loyalty is harder to come by
“Consumers are switching brands at a higher rate than ever before,” notes Germaine. This became particularly clear to Ketchum through its Brand Reckoning study. To address this challenge, the firm argues that brands need to focus efforts on identifying and understanding niche audiences to build relevancy.
“The time for precision in targeting and tracking is now,” Germaine adds.
Mike Moschella, director of DKC Analytics, sees this lack of brand loyalty to be particularly relevant when targeting Gen Z consumers.
“Gen Z’s worldview, media consumption and consumer behavior will be starkly different than older Americans,” he notes. “They have their own style of communicating and a higher barrier for trusting brands. Everyone in PR will need to understand this to succeed with a group that represents one-third of the world’s population.”
The tech at our disposal, and the tech we use most, is shifting
This year saw a lot of changes in the tech space, from the rise of entertainment tools like TikTok to far-right political views on apps like Parler.
“The way we share, engage, learn and endorse has changed during the pandemic. Video chat, messaging, collaborative digital spaces and yes, email, will keep workers online,” says Huq. “Breaking away from the internet to spend time with friends outdoors will be harder to do. And 5G will make it possible to consume all of it from anywhere.”
As a result, brands will have to do more to engage followers. Huq says that will lead to the generation of “enormous data about consumer behaviors and affinities that will make ad targeting more accurate, ad inventory more encompassing and models more precise.”
Gaming and streaming media are two areas where Moschella saw the most opportunity in 2020.
“When the first coronavirus shutdowns began in March, online content engagement, especially streaming media consumption, spiked off the charts,” he notes. “We doubled down on digital promotions for film and documentary clients and saw ROI that was often 1,000% better than normal.”
Moschella adds that DKC’s year-end consumer survey showed that 20% have turned to gaming platforms to keep in touch this year.
“We’re entering a world where almost any major product should consider its strategy to reach gamers with sponsorships, activations and tailored messaging,” he says.
COVID-19 and the ‘new normal’
The coronavirus changed every aspect of most people’s lives, and that includes analytics teams.
“[Teams were] fully exposed to the fact that prediction models and similar machine-learning practices are fully dependent on past patterns and behaviors and calculating the likelihood those patterns and behaviors occur again,” says John Gillooly, SVP of data and analytics at Hill+Knowlton Strategies. “COVID-19 broke that as we all adjusted to the ‘new normal.’”
However, Gillooly argues that term may not be accurate. Instead, think of it as a “constantly evolving normal.”
“As we move into 2021, ‘normal’ is probably not going to look like it did pre-COVID,” he adds.
COVID did, however, have a positive impact on at least one sector: charity. Moschella notes that some of DKC’s charitable clients saw an incredible increase in social shares related to things like donations to food banks, while some also saw low-cost email list growth. Meanwhile, traditional programs that had nothing to do with the pandemic, on the other hand, “were often ignored” in his experience.
A changing landscape: politics, e-commerce and moving away from vanity metrics
“In 2019, political posts on social media had roughly the same volume as football and women’s fashion posts,” Moschella observes. “But to date this year, we’ve seen almost 2 billion more political posts than football and fashion. If you avoided politics, you pretty much avoided 2020.”
That being said, Moschella notes that luxury survived, in spite of the prevalence of politics and the economic impacts of COVID.
“Overall Americans’ net savings have actually grown. Holidays have accelerated the shift from in-store to online. According to Deloitte, 2020 holiday shopping is 64% online and 28% in-store,” he notes. “This means PR activations that generate strong digital content and can drive sales are increasingly super valuable.”
Returning to politics, Gillooly observed increased scrutiny about polling -- and not just political polls that again failed to hit the mark on a presidential election.
“We long understood the limitations of polling and the importance of identifying and balancing lots of data sets, but the general scrutiny of the polls’ predictive powers requires us to reeducate clients on the process and the importance of blending traditional research tools to get an understanding of constantly evolving public opinion,” he says.
These observations led H+K to focus more on creating nimble analytics approaches, as well as the need to combine “standard data” with other data sets.
Bill Dalbec, MD of APCO Insight, argues that too many agencies are still relying on vanity metrics like followers and likes to demonstrate success.
“With budgets tighter and a media environment that is ever more cluttered, splintered and segmented, it is imperative to tie communication success to measurable, bottom line metrics,” Dalbec argues.
In addition to more traditional surveys, APCO has increasingly turned to digital pixels to identify digital users who have been exposed to a communications element. Then the firm serves up a short survey to determine perceptions in the moment.
“We can then link to anonymized data to determine if those surveyed are in our target audience and fine-tune the campaign as needed,” he says.
The human touch still matters, and humans know how to adapt to challenging situations
Covid may have made in-person qualitative research difficult if not impossible this year. Despite this sudden shift, Dalbec notes that individuals and companies quickly adapted, yielding a “rapid rise in new platforms and adaptations of familiar ones to move this research online.”
Gillooly sees it even more simply: “human insights and domain expertise still matter…a lot.”