James Warren, Weber Shandwick - Know what you don't know

To tell a consistent story, research the facts and deploy your resources across multiple channels.

Digital. Yay! It's the PR industry's Holy Grail, silver bullet, saving grace and a whole lot more besides, right? Well, no. Digital undoubtedly is a fantastic tool for PR professionals to do what we do best: tell stories. But digital alone won't do the job for you. If you want to most effectively tell a consistent story you need to deploy your resources across a variety of channels to reach your audience.

When planning campaigns and assembling the channels to best reach your audience, PR often relies too much on intuition. We must embrace planning and cosy-up to data. To try to right this wrong, Weber Shandwick surveyed almost 5,000 European consumers as part of its Inline Communications research into how people are truly influenced. We asked a representative sample of European consumers over the age of 18 the question: 'When considering purchasing goods or services in general, how influential are the following sources of information in helping you make your purchase decision?'

The results enabled us to challenge many of the myths surrounding media and influence. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on the UK data (sample of 1,007 adults). The first finding was that online advocacy was cited as being the most influential source of product/service information for UK consumers. By online advocacy we mean 'user reviews and recommendations from people online you do not know'.

So, digital is 'where it's at' and we can abandon the more traditional elements of communications, right? Wrong. While UK consumers claimed that online channels were most influential on their purchase decisions, 43 per cent also stated they often didn't believe what they read online until they had checked the facts in the traditional mainstream media. So while online is clearly a critical channel for storytelling, not backing up that story with activity in traditional media to validate that story is missing a huge opportunity. We call the need to create consistent stories across a variety of media 'inline communications'.

Some more misconceptions. Young consumers don't read traditional media, right? Wrong. Exactly half of UK consumers under the age of 35 believed magazines and newspapers to be influential. Of UK consumers over 45, only 29 per cent made the same claim. In fact, younger consumers are far more likely than their more elderly compatriots to find all sources of information influential. But the myth that the media isn't the best way to reach young adults in the UK must be destroyed.

Some commonly held beliefs do seem to hold up, however. Attitudes to brand engagement within social networking sites (such as Facebook and Bebo) by UK consumers differ markedly by age group. Almost half (49 per cent) of those aged 18 to 24 said they would be interested in interacting with their favourite brands within these online communities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, only 15 per cent of the over-45s were interested in the same thing.

But to further confuse matters, while young UK consumers are far more pre-disposed to interacting with brands within social media, they are just as likely as the over-45s not to believe what they read online until they check the facts in the mainstream traditional media - 43 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds agreed they often didn't believe what they read online until they had checked it out in the mainstream media, compared with 45 per cent of the over-45s.

What does this tell us? That organisations need to tell a consistent story across a variety of channels in order to most effectively reach the audience they are trying to influence. And in doing so, they need to challenge preconceptions and embrace fact.

- James Warren is chief digital creative officer at Weber Shandwick.

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