The Role of PR in Social Media Outreach

Here’s another perspective on disciplinary responsibility for social media (via @TDefren via @Aerocles on Twitter).  There’s a four-point argument for social media marketing as the natural domain of PR professionals.  The most concise summation can be found in the comments (thanks, Stuart Foster):

If we do our jobs right, Social media will no longer exist. It will simply be known as PR (and live within that category). The concept of social media belongs to outreach, engagement and corporate communications strategy.

The tactical parts? Can be handled by customer service/community managers. The overarching control should go to PR though.

Okay, I said “another perspective,” but really this is another angle to the same perspective, which is that—for all the newness of social media—traditional marketing disciplines nurture the qualities necessary to effectively manage a new channel.  The outreach and communication functions are as natural to PR as the monitoring function is to market research, which I think coincides with the research vs. action divide Whitney brought up in her comment.  Aerocles doesn’t touch the monitoring aspect—not sure if that’s intentional or not.

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The Role of the Researcher in Social Media Monitoring

Spiral16 put this poll on their blog recently:

Who do you think is best suited to handle social media monitoring for a company?

  • Social Media Software Provider
  • Public Relations Firm
  • Advertising/Digital Agency
  • Direct Company (MarCom or Other Department)
  • Social Media Consultant/New Media Agency

This is a pertinent question, not just for brands and brand managers trying to settle on a vendor, but for “integrated” agencies where the responsibilities in the Spiral16 poll may or may not be clearly assigned. Leaving aside the issue of disciplinary silos vs. multidisciplinary collaboration, there seems an obvious omission from the prompted answer set: a market research consulting company.

Clearly, I come at this with a certain bias. And I know certain natural characteristics of the market researcher—a cautious approach to new methods, a generally poor track record of marketing themselves—have helped to cede this ground to ad agencies, PR firms, and new media gurus.

But the skills of the researcher really dovetail nicely with social media monitoring (SMM) in several ways that are clearly missing from the conversation.

  1. SMM is a measurement tool. Customer satisfaction, attitude and usage studies, market tracking…all are regular tools in the researcher’s kit. The biggest difference with social media is that the researcher is not instrumental in generating the content. This difference has some implications for analysis, but the overall analytical framework is similar. And experience with large, ongoing datasets—as well as traditional methods of brand tracking—can only help make SMM more effective.
  2. SMM is a form of listening. Your direct marketer, your advertising creative, your PR pro—their job has traditionally been to deliver a message (and hope it translates to action on the part of the consumer). The researcher’s job is to listen to what people say (and hope it translates into action on the part of the brand).
  3. SMM requires a deep understanding of how to use quantitative and qualitative data. The amount of data covered by SMM services is unfathomable. Data sets are where the researcher operates. The business objective dictates research methodology, and the same is true for SMM, which can yield an absolute number of brand mentions per week, a single serious complaint about a product, or a detailed review by a heavy influencer—depending on the approach (and the SMM service). Market research has always involved these kinds of negotiations.
  4. SMM demands you know who is talking. Good research data always begins with knowing your universe and understanding your sample. The biggest flaw in new media studies (and sometimes monitoring services) is a lack of transparency about where the data come from. You may have 80% positive sentiment or have doubled your web chatter from last month. But 80% of what? And who is chatting?

There are a lot of smart people in social media, without research backgrounds, who are dealing with SMM the right way. And those in the research business, some late to the game, have their own learning curve. But overlooking the experience of research professionals stands to make the curve sharper for everyone.

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The Art and Science of Market Research

Here’s a question (and answer) posed by the thoughtful Gavin Johnston, Chief Anthropologist at Two West, on a LinkedIn market research message board:

Q: Do demographics and psychographics obscure our understanding of our customers, users, clients?

A: I understand that segmentation and quantification are essential to a point, but do they also provide and inherent deviation from understanding context and the complexities of human interaction? I sometimes think that businesses are inclined to obsess over the trees in the forest, so to speak, without thinking about the linkages between the trees, the forest, the entire ecosystem. People rarely function exclusively as individuals, but as part of a shared socio-cultural system. Does the emphasis on neatly categorizing people obscure the larger system?

[After I posted an answer, I thought it seemed like as good a place as any to start beta-testing this WordPress software.  So here goes.]

That’s a pretty big question. First, any type of research or observation only reveals a part of the ecosystem…it’s the researcher’s job to relate the specific study result to the whole. But the question posits a more actively negative function–it’s a bit different to obscure reality than only to reveal a part of it.

Businesses absolutely obsess over statistical trees. Look at the way good measurables might point towards short-term stock performance, but not necessarily reflect a sound business plan and management team poised for long-term growth. In another field entirely, Bill Simmons had a column recently bemoaning the state of basketball statistics, wondering why so many intangibles remain uncaptured, despite the advances of baseball’s sabremetrics. Basketball skill, he contends, can be measured much better by a trained observer than by piles of statistics.

Or check out this Nation column decrying the use of evolutionary psychology and (gasp!) quantitative measurement in literary criticism: http://tinyurl.com/ll4e4z. Sample quote: “[The literary Darwinists’] goal is not only to reseat literary studies on a basis of evolutionary thinking but to found a “new humanities,” as the title of one book puts it, on scientific principles: empirical, quantitative, systematic, positivist, progressive.”

All of the increased computing power has put enormous quantities of information at our disposal, and with it, the expectation we can find the little bit of information we need when we need it. But that also leads to forcing square pegs into round holes. On a practical level, that might mean taking a Claritas Prizm segmentation and imposing it on your customer base. If you’re looking to do a direct mail campaign, maybe that’s okay. If you’re trying to gain new insight, probably not.

But where technology has confused us, I’m hopeful it provides an answer, or at least one answer. The field of social network theory and the software developed to monitor social media are both concerned with linkages and ecosystems and relationships. Just now are we starting to apply those models to more conventional data sets.

The other solution is much more low-tech–good research is part science, surely, but part art. The tension between the humanities and the social sciences is an interesting one. Art (and the humanities) are a harder sell, for sure. Just ask a high school senior. But I don’t think they’re less valuable. Does an overemphasis on science “obscure” one’s openness to art? Perhaps. But data doesn’t segment itself, even with SPSS. You need a person at the other end who can piece together the story, paint the whole picture. That can’t always be done with numbers alone. The trick, as with the Old Masters, is finding a good patron.

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