When Words and Data Collide

Word people and data people, when working together, can rule the world.

That was one of the key messages of this year’s annual Public Relations Society of America International Conference, which took place in Washington, D.C. last week.

That theme—the dominance of the written word combined with meaningful data—was struck over and over again.

If you listened closely to Mike Buckley, VP of Global Business and Communication at Facebook, he reported that the social media network now has over 30 specially developed data dashboards to review various indicators of user engagement, satisfaction and interest. Not only that, but Facebook polls an estimated 35,000 consumers every day. As a group, the senior leadership meets at least weekly, but perhaps more frequently when the need arises, to discuss emerging trends, areas of import and interest among their membership, and how that data informs their next move in the marketplace.

Put simply, Facebook doesn’t make many meaningful moves without first crunching and consulting the data.

In one of the PRSA sessions, a fellow attendee revealed that more and more, our newsrooms are becoming almost slaves to their own Twitter feed and the enigma of search engine optimization. Reporters whose stories get more retweets and mentions are in turn getting more column inches or opportunities to write more stories that will drive engagement. Articles are now being edited to include key words from the SEO experts at the outlets to extend the reach of these individual stories and, over time, the reach of the brand across multiple platforms.

Social media is not just broadcasting the news. It’s shaping it.

However, while in some areas the data revolution is moving at lightning speed, other areas are still having trouble adapting. As one presenter put it, our industry spent the last 20 years building media contact database systems at the expense of examining how the content we are putting out there is being received by target audiences and whether or not target audiences are really even engaging with it.

But how do you turn that corner and start accurately measuring engagement rather than simply reach?

While the next wave of industry-specific data and what it will look like is still very much up for debate, it seems clear that part of the next wave in data evaluation may include the wider use of sentiment indicators.

Most often associated with the financial markets sector, sentiment indicators are the group of factors that go into determining whether Wall Street analysts are “bearish” or “bullish” on a given company’s economic forecast.

But the closest thing to the use of sentiment indicators most of the lay public would see—which illustrates the essential linkages between words and data—can be found on CNN during election cycles. It’s that real-time scoring mechanism that shows voter sentiment during political debates. A candidate says something the audience likes, sentiment goes up. Something they don’t? Sentiment goes down. At some future point, we may be seeing sentiment indicators not just on debate night, but as frequently as we see the NASDAQ ticker on CNBC. That’s a potential vision of the future of data and content.

But until then, the tried and true methods of thoughtful data collection, insightful analysis and the creation of the words—informed by the data—will continue to rule the day.

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