The Science beneath the Art of Communications Research – Update, Spring 2013

Frank WaltonPaul Holmes’ May 3rd blog, “10 Ways to Design the PR Agency of the Future,” (recently summarized here at IPR Conversations by Alyssa Hubbell on June 26th) challenged PR to put “big data at the center” and to provide “insight to drive meaningful creativity.” The scope of that challenge is hard to overstate, and it is a challenge that is not yet being met by other parts of the marketing communications and communications research industries.

The Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) sponsored its annual Audience Measurement Conference, “Measuring the Unmeasured,” June 10-11, 2013 in New York for an upbeat crowd. Presentations were dominated by the major suppliers of the industry – Arbitron, comScore, GfK, Nielsen and a handful of others. Some distinguished, major advertisers (including AT&T, Bank of America, Diageo, Facebook) showcased impressive media research initiatives, and some of the leading media companies made appearances (ABC, NBC, Turner).

The explicit theme of the conference was that we live in a multi-platform world; consumer impact is never achieved through one channel, but by inputs (messages) from multiple sources or — as it was most often characterized – screens (broadcast and cable TV, desktops, and mobile – both smartphones and tablets). The unspoken implicit perspective was that only screens (and occasionally radio) really matter anymore.  That’s a fundamentally problematic unspoken proposition in a multi-channel, integrated communications ecosystem, but probably reflective of the roots and habits of the ARF members.

The confident vibe at the conference was probably rooted in the emerging sense from this ad research community that ‘We’ve got this under control.’  This same ARF conference in 2012 had for its theme, “The Measurement Crisis” – a far cry from the more self-assured theme, this year, of “Measuring the Unmeasured.”

You could hardly avoid the sense of social / digital / mobile media as having been tamed, after all, by the intrepid ad research community. ‘It took us some time. We were kind of shaken last year this time. But we marshaled our wits. We partnered with other companies – a bit of “united we stand; divided we fall.” We got a handle on this. We corralled all this pesky new consumer behavior and changing technologies into our methodological frameworks. We don’t have all the answers yet, but we pulled through.’  This cheekiness is well earned, as was particularly evident in some genuinely arresting case studies presented by ESPN, AT&T, Colgate-Palmolive, Facebook, and others.

But the ad research community doesn’t recognize how much more of the Unmeasured they haven’t measured yet.  Most of the presentations – insightful and worthwhile – still see digital and social primarily for pushing out crafted, calculated messages, essentially as ad placement channels.

In this peculiarly screen-centric world of the ARF, there is surprisingly scant acknowledgement that those people at the receiving end of the screen sometimes talk back, and often talk to each other. It was ironic then that just a few days after the ARF conference, Ad Week published a report about data compiled by Zefr that provides a shockingly different perspective: “Of CoverGirl’s 251 million total views on YouTube, 249 million (or 99 percent) are from fan-created videos . . . 92 percent of Oreo’s views and 99 percent of Revlon’s views come from fan content.” It turns out that for many brands, and it seems increasingly more brands, creation and control of the brands are in the hands of the consumer: the screen-centric world turns out to work both directions after all.

By putting all that methodological sophistication and resources into a legacy sales channel (one-way communication) model, the ARF mindset is spending itself into decreasing relevance at least as fast, and much more expensively, as the PR industry. Accenture’s report on a global survey of 400+ CMOs at $1+ billion companies, “Turbulence for the CMO: Charting a Path for the Seamless Customer Experience” asserts that marketing communications budgets are increasing – by 20% or more annually – but that spend is not going to either the ad or the PR agencies.  The CMOs in Accenture’s sample are spending on digital interaction and engagement: so, advertising, take heed – future dollars are not to be found in more efficient message delivery through this year’s most fashionable screen device.

And public relations, also take note: Accenture’s CMOs are rarely retaining PR agencies for any digital / social services. Less than 10% of any of these companies are working with PR agencies for social media monitoring, web analytics, customer insights, or even content management.  PR agencies are clearly at the back of the pack behind specialized digital agencies and data-based marketing services, ad agencies, systems integrators (e.g., Infosys, IBM) and traditional management consultants (e.g., McKinsey).

It’s odd.  Ad agencies, with lots of resources and methodological sophistication, are missing the same boat as are the PR agencies – which mostly do not have that kind of data and research fire power.

At the ARF conference I chatted with a friend, who should remain anonymous.  The friend is the senior research and strategy executive at a global player ad agency, an agency every reader of this blog would know.  My friend says, “This data, this comparative analysis of channels, is amazing – but it doesn’t tell me what to do! I can know how to coordinate my mobile, print, and TV buys for maximum reach – but I still don’t have any guidance about strategy or content.” Our conversation continued with long ruminations and how, practically, we should be putting big data at the center of our enterprise in order to provide the insights that drives meaningful creativity – and about the “science beneath the art of advertising and public relations.”

An earlier version of this blog was posted on June 11, 2013 at commPRO.biz as “Taking Measure of the Measurers: the 2013 ARF Audience Measurement Conference.”

Franklin Walton, Ph.D., is Deputy Chair, Media and Communication Arts Department, City College of New York; and also Principal, Franklin Walton LLC and Member, Measurement Commission, Institute for Public Relations.

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One Comment

  1. Hi Frank.

    Great observations. Amazing to think that the ad folks, who were long ago into account planning and developing insights from target audiences might be missing what they used to lead in.

    It also strikes me that putting “big data at the center” is easier said than done. Big data is undoubtedly a marvelous resource, but aside from all the issues around the data itself (formatting, accessibility, processing, etc.) it still is only a mass of data. The trick to making it useful is determining useful ways to query the data, or determining useful hypotheses you can test using the big data set or sets you have at hand.

    The skills required to do this are not common. Moreover, my guess is that these queries or hypotheses will more frequently than not come from outside the big data. They may be hunches or they may be well reasoned based on other research, but they will require the kind of formative research for which ad agencies used to be known, but PR agencies never have been. Nevertheless, the value of the big data will directly depend on the value and insight of the query.

    To succeed with big data, and I believe to succeed at all going forward, PR agencies will need to develop more of the kind of qualitative and quantitative information based consultative thinking we see at management consulting firms.

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