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PR research with Mark Weiner | On Top of PR podcast

By On Top of PR

On Top of PR podcast: PR research with guest Mark Weiner and show host Jason Mudd episode graphicLearn about earned media attribution technology, quantifying ROI for your PR, and making better business decisions with our guest Mark Weiner. Mark is the chief insights officer at Cision. He is a member of the Arthur Page Society and a board member for the Institute for Public Relations.



Our episode guest is Mark Weiner, the chief insights officer at Cision. He is a member of the Arthur Page Society and a board member for the Institute for Public Relations.



Quantify return-on-investment for your public relations and how research leads to better business decisions



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Five things you’ll learn from this episode:

  1. Why is research valuable to your profession?

  2. Why do companies make the mistake of overlooking, underfunding, or skipping the research phase for campaigns?

  3. How do you fund research when the perception is there is no budget for it?

  4. What’s the right price for research?

  5. What is attribution technology, and why is it a game-changer for the public relations industry?


  • “Research is a matter of willingness for communicators, not a matter of ability.” — @WeinerMark

  • “Research and data take the emotion out of decision making.” — @WeinerMark

  • “Being approximately right is better than being totally in the dark.” — @WeinerMark

  • “Research often acts as a type of insurance.” — @WeinerMark

  • “Public relations does not drive the most sales in terms of volume, but it does provide the greatest efficiency.” — @WeinerMark

  • “Public relations is as big of a game-changer as social media was 10 years ago.” — @WeinerMark  

If you enjoyed the episode, would you please leave us a review?


About Mark Weiner:

Mark Weiner is the chief insights officer at Cision, a multifaceted communication software company that helps you reach, target, engage, and measure your audience to enrich corporate and brand reputation. Weiner is also a member of the Arthur Page Society, a board director for the Institute for Public Relations, and serves on the academic advisory board for the University of Florida School of Public Relations. 


Throughout Weiner’s 25 plus years of experience in the public relations industry, he has gained vast knowledge of the value and necessity of public relations research. He continuously aims to help elevate the PR profession.


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- [Female Voiceover] Welcome to "On Top of PR" where we share how to use the power of PR to build a strong brand and great reputation for your company. Here's your host, Jason Mudd.


- [Jason] This is Jason Mudd, and you're listening to "On Top of PR" the podcast for CMOs and marketing leaders. We're thrilled to have Mark Weiner on the show today.


- [Mark] Thanks very much, Jason.


- [Jason] Mark Weiner is chief insights officer for Cision. He is a member of the Arthur Page Society, a board director for the Institute for Public Relations and serves on the academic advisory board for the University of Florida School of Public Relations. Mark, it's a real pleasure to have you here on the show today. And why don't you share a little bit more about yourself with our listeners?


- [Mark] Oh, well, thank you. While I work in the communications research field, I was actually an English major, and I'm not particularly good at statistics. I'm just lucky to be surrounded by people who are. Their statistical acumen and their understanding of public relations combined with my experience has been a winning combination.

- [Jason] Before we started recording, we were talking earlier about how much I think research is very valuable to the profession and that oftentimes I see companies, you know, not willing to invest the dollars upfront on doing research. And I think that couldn't be further from best practice. And I shared with you a story of, we were working with a engineering firm and the leadership there had a perception that the marketplace perceived X about their engineering firm, and they wanted to move the market's perception towards Y. And as a naive expert, our agency came in and kind of said, you know, I don't think that the marketplace perceives what you think they perceive. I think that instead of perceiving your brand as X, they're already perceiving it as Y, and I persuaded them to let's spend the first couple of months doing some grassroots research and then reviewing our research towards the end of month two, and let's see where things stand. And as I explained to you, we went through our process, Mark, and we discovered that a super majority, even more than 88%, I think the number was, or that I think more than 80%, I think the number was 88% of the marketplace was already in tune to the perception that the leadership team wanted to create. And so the moral of the story is that by spending two months doing research, we saved a year or two of what the leadership team thought the perception was, and trying to change a perception that didn't need to be changed. And I think that's really a testament to your work and the value you bring to your clients. Have you had several examples like that happen in your career also?


- [Mark] Jason, in the way that you set that question up, you hit on a number of points. The first of which is that research is a matter of willingness for communicators, not a matter of ability. There are now hundreds of low cost or even free platforms that help professional communicators apply research in their work and in so doing, minimize the risk of decision making. Now, in what you discovered on behalf of your client was perhaps a confirmation of what they might have believed. You felt that their positioning was strong and that the marketplace understood this client's proposition. And as it turns out, that was true. Very often research simply confirms what people believe. And that's certainly not a waste of money. That's important because it helps to focus resources on what matters most. And it unleashes the power of creativity where it can have the greatest effect. And sometimes there's real breakthroughs that happen. And I can think of many examples where clients came into a research project, assuming that the marketplace believes one thing and it turned out to be something entirely different. Now, if we had simply accepted their hypothesis, they would have wasted whatever resources, convincing people of something in which they already believed. Now, there are times that really counterintuitive discoveries come and they come only as a result of this kind of research. And I think the final point I'd make, based on your experience, is that research and data take the emotion out of decision making. So rather than you, as their communications counselor, trying to convince them that the marketplace knows them and understands them for who they are and who they want to be, the data overcame the obstacle. The data was a way to convince them in a language that was factual and in the language of business that the starting place was different than what they thought. And as a result, you were able to focus resources where the return would be greatest.


- [Jason] Yeah. Thanks, Mark. I completely agree. And what you're reminding me of is just kind of the idea of that my perception is a lot of times companies, regardless of what their budget might be, whether it's, you know, a hundred thousands of dollars or millions of dollars that, you know, every company seems to think their budget is low, right? And every company is looking for ways to save money. And I think a common mistake is to overlook or underfund, or just completely skip the research phase of any particular campaign program or whatever it is the company might be looking to do. And then what I find happen is they opt not to invest in research, but then suddenly when they want to measure the success of the program, they have established no baseline. And it's really hard for them to come back and go back in history in a time machine and figure out the information they wish they would have had later, because they were unwilling to invest in such resources. When that happens, do you have any tips or techniques that you recommend for companies that, how do you say, they could, help sell to management the value of research or help come up with creative ways to fund it? Knowing as we talked about that, you know, if you don't do it, it might be very risky and very expensive.


- [Mark] Well, I think it's human nature that everyone wants three scoops of ice cream for the nickel. And that just comes with the territory, whether it's research or communications or anything else in life. The way to create a sense of value for research is it comes in two forms. One is the desire, and I've never heard of any CEO from any size organization, argue with the logic of this. Now, in one instance in the way that you described it was using public relations as a way to evaluate PR performance. And that can happen at the end of the year, that can happen throughout the year. But by waiting 'til the end of the year, you have precluded the opportunity of doing anything about the results while you still had a chance. At the end of the year, it's just too late to, you know, to change something from February. Now, the other part of research after the applied research beyond evaluation is to generate the inputs that a communicator in a business needs to do better over time. So the idea of using research as a wave to sip smarter objectives that can later be used for evaluation, but to set smarter objectives, to develop a more coherent strategy, that's more likely to work, you know, then one where there is no research involved in strategy development, using research as a way to identify and execute the best campaigns. And then at the end of the cycle to evaluate not so much as a report card, but as a tutor. So a report card tells you how you did. It's too late at the end of the period. A tutor tells you how to improve your grade while you still can, but you still have an opportunity to improve. So in that context, these two elements come together, the desire to communicate the value of public relations and the need to improve PR performance. Now, assuming that the budget is appropriate, we could talk about that, you know, how much, what the right amount for research ought to be, but assuming it's inappropriate amount of research, and as I'm saying, it could even be free and I'd recommend to anybody that being approximately right is better than being totally in the dark. Even a little bit of research goes a long way in ensuring that whatever the budget is for communications is spent wisely.


- [Jason] I'm definitely having flashbacks to 7th grade progress reports and report cards, Mark, I appreciate that.


- [Mark] Is that I have to ask you, is that a pleasant memory or an unpleasant memory?


- [Jason] Oh, not pleasant, not pleasant. But yeah, no, I agree. A progress support kind of tells you gives you a forewarning of where you're headed so that you can detour or u-turn before something becomes more final and there's no turning back. Mark, you've set this up really nice for me to ask you what I think is the question our listeners want to know, and I want to know which is how do you fund research when there's a perception that there is no budget for it?


- [Mark] Two parts to that answer, right? One is that research often acts as a type of insurance to make sure that whatever the level of investment is, is spent wisely and that it's fully optimized. So, and your example earlier is such a case where you can spend whatever your budget is. And I'm just going to assume that whatever that budget is, it's a precious budget. That one wants to make sure that every penny of that budget is optimized to deliver the desired outcome. Now, the other part to that question is what's the right amount for research? There are I have to call it a myth, that 10% is the right amount for research. Now there are cases where 10% might be right. It's usually more like 4%, three to 4%, but there are times when, if, you know, if there's a breakthrough product being launched, the 10% might not even be enough. If you have one shot at this, research might command a much larger budget, because you only get one chance to make this a product introduction. Conversely, there may be times when a 1% is too much. If you're just milking a dying brand, it depends on the situation and what you're trying to accomplish.

- [Jason] When a company has decided they're going to proceed with a research program, how might they prepare? What elements do they need? What are you looking for them to bring to the table that helps you work more efficiently with them and guide them better?


- [Mark] Well, understanding what they hope to accomplish or that could be stated in another way, what their hypothesis is going in. So if they know, you know, whether the measure of success will be media coverage or raising awareness or directly driving sales, there are ways to measure all of that. And the research methods that are used might be a little bit different from one to another, but knowing what the organization wants to accomplish through the campaign or through the ongoing communications program is probably the most important question and whatever hypothesis they want to check. So in your example, the hypothesis was that this positioning needs to be changed in order to reinforce who we are. It turns out the research proved that they, you know, that it was a false premise. People actually did know what that engineering firm does, and that, you know, that helped you focus resources on what comes next. So just understanding the client organization is trying to prove what they're trying to accomplish, and that sets the table for the best research method. And it also helps to shape the budget.


- [Jason], Mark, you're reminding me that with that engineering firm, we worked with, you know, the best part for them, I think, was that while they invested two months of their budget into the research, they ultimately ended up saving 10 months or 12 months in total by being able to accelerate their program by a whole year to go ahead, because ultimately our research had verified that what they were hoping to accomplish in the first year or two of the program was already accomplished. And we were able to focus on that, you know, less than 20% of the marketplace, who still had a lingering perception, we were able to address those with more direct marketing techniques and use our PR program to focus on reinforcing the new messages and the new positioning and the elevated positioning that was the primary way that the company was gonna enjoy success. So, you know, I think that's one way for sure, to demonstrate how putting a little bit of money into research, paid big dividends by ultimately saving the company a lot of money. And I think there's obviously that's very compelling to anyone who's got control of financial dollars is they want to either save money or make money with those dollars.


- [Mark] What you're describing fits more broadly under the umbrella of return on investment. So when people talk about return on investment for public relations, they tend to gravitate towards making the connection between PR and sales, which can be done. It's much more accessible now using attribution technology than it's ever been. That's the sexy connection. The one that's most accessible, the most accessible way to connect public relations with return on investment is what you described, which is efficiency, doing more with less and for less. And that relates to both dollars and time. So you were able to accelerate this client's program by having the research that was available to them based on your insistence. So efficiency, those are questions that every communicator answers every day about whether to do this or do that, and what the return is for doing one thing or another. So by you, knowing in advance, that was 20% that needed to be informed, and then pursuing the 20% with a certain type of messaging and communication strategy designed just for them. You're able to perhaps focus those resources against a 20% of the total population versus a hundred percent of the population. My bet is there were efficiencies there, and that the cost of the research was recouped through that efficiency, by being more targeted. And also, my bet is that whatever response you sought by targeting that 20% was realized more efficiently than it would have been had you gone to the entire population of a hundred percent with generic messaging, 80% of whom, you know, 80% percent of that audience would not have really responded to that because they already knew all that. So my bet is, there was a great deal of efficiency in focusing on the 20%. And that's the kind of logic that CFOs and CEOs appreciate that you want to do a better job of making a budget go further and to aspire to generating a return on investment, a return on PR investment. And that's not the way that most PR people think, but it's available. And it's certainly language of the boardroom.


- [Jason] Let's give our listeners the opportunity to get your best contact information so they can reach you if they have any questions while they're listening or after the podcast. I think you said you would prefer that people drop you an email if they want to connect. Is that right? That's the best way. So my email address is Weiner, W-E-I-N-E-R at prime-research.com. That's W-E-I-N-E-R at P-R-I-M-E hyphen research dot com. And my Twitter handle is at Weiner Mark.


- [Female Voiceover] You're listening to "On Top of PR" with your host, Jason Mudd. Jason is a trusted advisor to some of America's most admired and fastest growing brands. He is the managing partner at Axia Public Relations, a PR agency that guides news, social and web strategies for national companies. And now back to the show.


- [Jason] Said several things that really, you know, peaked my interest and the first one you said was attribution technology. Let's explore that a little bit more for our listeners who might not be familiar with it.


- [Mark] Sure, So the technology that has been developed and in use in marketing is now available for earned media. So if you've ever had this experience, as I have, where I went shopping for one thing online in one place, then the next day, I receive a popup ad in my New York Times feed for the same product from another online retailer, that's attribution technology. So they know without knowing my name, they know my IP address and that I was looking for a pair of shoes or whatever. Actually, I bought a set of tires once this way, which is an unusual way to buy tires, but I couldn't find these tires in the places I normally look. And then a tire retailer that I'd never heard of popped up in my New York Times feed for exactly the tires I was looking for. And these were an unusual set of tires, and I bought them. Now, granted, that was one time out of a million of these popups that I get, you know, all the time, but in a way it made it worth it for me. So while these popups are sometimes intrusive, sometimes a little bit annoying, the intent of the marketer is to put in front of us something to make a buying decision easier. Now the same technology is used for earned media when as most people do read news their phone or to a lesser degree on a desktop. So when I'm reading the New York Times, and I see a story about vacation getaways, and I click on that story, the rest of the story opens up for me. And I can read about these five recommendations for Caribbean holidays, whatever. Well, if I see something for a Caribbean holiday, from one, you know, let's say from a hotel or an airline, then I might want to dig a little deeper. I might research that resort or that airline, or learn more about it from review sites like TripAdvisor, whomever. So all of that can be tracked. And so when now using this technology, if I see that story and I clicked on it, and after I clicked on it, I go to my favorite airline to see about, you know, flight schedules to that place, that'll be recorded. If I go to the resort and want to learn more, that will be recorded. If it turns out that resort, isn't everything I'm looking for, but the location is interesting, I might look at other resorts that are neighboring the one that first appeared in the news item. All of that can be tracked. And so let's say I clicked on the story. I went to TripAdvisor or some review site. It looks fantastic. I go to the resort and book that trip, that whole path is digital, and it can be recorded and then fed back to the communicator, and over time, we'd start to see patterns that certain media are more likely to generate click-throughs than other media. And this type of technology also provides detailed demographics and firmographics. So that if I'm the communicator, I might find that certain media outlets reach my target audience more effectively, more efficiently than the conventional wisdom. So if everybody's trying to get them in New York Times, as everybody is, it can be very competitive. If, however, I can reach the same target audience through a weekly newspaper then, and let's say it's a lot less competitive to reach out to an editor at a weekly newspaper. Then I've learned something that enables me to overcome the conventional wisdom, to say that these are our media choices. These are the only ways to get to whom we want to find more efficient ways. And I'll give you an example. We work with a luxury import brand that specializes or offers high end sports cars and the PR team for that company, their approach to public relations is to get auto writers from the car bus magazines on the racetrack, riding in these cars, you know, racing in these cars. And when we did this for this demographic analysis, what we learned was that the people who identify themselves as most likely to buy a luxury import sports car in the next six months, the preferred source of that kind of information, the media that they go to most consistently, and they recognize as most credible was "Martha Stewart Living." So it wasn't "Car and Driver, it wasn't "Road and Track." It was something that these guys in the press office never considered that they were targeting the wrong gender. They were targeting media that had no penetration among that gender, you know, so they had to really rethink their approach. They did, and as a result, their results went up and they were able to link those results to sales. So the measure of public relations in this environment is very different than the conventional approaches. It's not about reach or frequency or how many stories or even positive, negative, neutral, all that stuff. It's more like what coverage drives sales. So when you combine this attribution technology with traditional forms of content analysis, you can create a whole level of intelligence that has previously not been available to PR people. So now we know which media, which journalists are most receptive to certain types of stories, which media reached the right audiences, which media and journalists drive the most click-throughs, which ones drive the right kind of click-throughs to our website, for example. So it really changes the foundation of public relations, how it's practiced and how it's measured. Very exciting time in that way.


- [Jason] Mark, that is a certainly very fascinating and a perfect example of how data-directed insight that then gave intelligence to completely redirect, you know, probably the traditional or perceived best approach for the PR program. And so that's a really good story. I like that. So I want to go back to, just to clarify for our listeners, you're saying that an article that appeared online without I'm assuming without a hyperlink to your client's website, your client was still able to use attribution technology to track back that Sally consumer saw this story and then ultimately ended up making a purchase. Is that what you're advising?


- [Mark] That's what I'm saying. So when you think about this, it promises a revolution. And in a way, many communicators might find risky because these traditional measures like a circulation of a hundred million total circulation of a hundred million starts to matter less than 2,000 people who actually clicked on the article. And 1,000 of those people who clicked actually went to your website and 400 of them went to the part on your website, where they downloaded information, or on an e-commerce site, 200 people actually bought something. So it changes this dynamic from the big number PR, which is still helpful indicator to now that, you know, real smart data about, you know, who actually bought something, who downloaded information. It brings public relations from above the sales funnel, sort of in a way that's hard to quantify raising awareness generally, because, you know, the assumption is that if you're in the media, that people are somehow reading it, watching it, listening to it. Now it's much more quantifiable. So now, there's the potential for public relations to be measured quantitatively based on its contribution to sales and how far down the sales funnel public relations can carry a consumer. Now, two other things. One is that having this data enables PR people to work in a much more fully integrated marketing and communications environment, so that this is a sort of data that is being collected by advertising and marketing and other marketing communication channels within the company. Very often public relations is left outside of that data pool, because we don't have the right kind of data. This matches perfectly to the kind of data that marketers are using. And the other point I wanna make is that while public relations, this is based on dozens, maybe hundreds of examples, public relations does not drive the most sales in terms of volume, but it does drive the greatest efficiency. And there's two reasons for that. In other words, return on investment is highest for PR. And that's because of two factors. One is that public relations budgets are extraordinarily low. On average, PR budgets relative to overall marketing spending is less than half of 1%, which rounds down to 0% in the total marketing mix, especially for mass market consumer brands. So very low budgets, but the benefit for public relations and it's a unique benefit, is that the decay rate of that newspaper article or that magazine article, whatever, the decay rate is extraordinarily slow. And that's because it lives on the internet. So if you were gonna buy a car, let's say, if you're like me, you want to do a lot of research. You'd go on, you know, you'd read car reviews, you'd read, you know, what experts are saying about this car. And so that is that kind of editorial review is often done in collaboration with a PR person. So PR earned media coverage lives on for years. And so the decay rate for let's say a price promotion, a two-for-one offer, the life of that promotion ends the day the price goes back to normal. In mass market advertising like TV advertising, the effects of an ad might last for a week or so after the ad ends, but for public relations and earned media, the life of that story has a life for years. And then that's that combination very low budget. Long life means that the public relations has an extraordinarily high level of efficiency. In other words, a dollar goes a lot further. A dollar investment PR might generate $8 on the dollar in sales, whereas an advertisement might generate 10 cents on the dollar. And yet for now, 80% of most mass market brands invest in advertising. While, like I was saying, the level of investment in PR has a half of 1%, so that this kind of attribution technology promises to increase PR budgets because now PR can be measured in the same way that advertising has been measured and is being measured. And people can see the efficiency. It's quantifiable that PR delivers a better return. And in all of these examples, we've seen no point of diminishing return, so that even if the PR budget has doubled, we see no plateau, the PR budgets tripled, no plateau continues to rise in terms of the sales attributable to earned media. So that's very promising for public relations.


- [Jason] Well, that is good news, Mark. Really good news. Is there anything else that you are working on that you're excited about or that you see as a game changer for the industry?


- [Mark] Well, that which I just described, this attribution analysis is I think for public relations is as big a game changer as social media was 10 years ago. This promises to revolutionize public relations. Now, the question that the profession has to answer is whether it's ready to make this change. I know of an agency, for example, who, when they heard about this balked, because the agency relies heavily on media relations. Most clients want to see big numbers. And the agency saw this as a threat that billions of circulation, you know, whatever they aggregate to is now 50,000 people clicking on the website. For an agency with a million dollar budget, you know, 500 click-throughs is you might as well, you can give everybody $200 and not pay the agency.


- [Jason] Right, right.


- [Mark] You know, you can do a lot with that kind of money. So they were concerned with looking at something like the cost per clip or the cost per thousand circulation, which looks very favorable for PR and looking at it instead as cost per thousand click-throughs, which for a million dollar budget does not look as good. But anyway, so it'll be interesting to see now how quickly the profession adapts to this change and adopts the practice.


- [Jason] I'm thinking I'm having flashbacks again about fax machines and how long it took so many professionals to wean themselves off of fax. And in my mind, when I hear about an agency like you're describing that wants to hide from the data, not use it and not leverage it and, you know, balk at it because it might shift what they're reporting. You know, it makes me think of, are they sending those reports through a fax machine also because, you know, for me, this is very exciting, something that the industry has needed, and yes, I agree often our peers are slow to adopt, but I think part of it is just not having, you know, strong leadership with people like you and I. I think, you know, really guiding these folks and showing them it's going to be okay. And yes, you may have to rethink your campaign and rethink your program exactly like you described with the "Martha Stewart Living" being the significant conversion that no one expected. Right? I mean, I would have put a lot of money on that would not have worked, but that just shows you that the power of perceptions. You can believe in your perception very strongly, but be very wrong. And I think that's why you need data so that you can capture data, gather insights, and then make informed decisions versus just following the status quo.


- [Mark] Well, that's a challenge in life. My wife tells me all the time that I am often wrong, never uncertain. And there's a lot of that in the world.


- [Female Voiceover] That's all for this episode of "On Top of PR." Using the power of PR, your company can build awareness, trust and consideration among your ideal audiences. Be sure to visit axiapr.com to check out free resources, including webinars e-books, and our PR hack of the week.

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