It’s becoming more fashionable to claim that your PR and marketing is “data-driven,” but what exactly does that mean? It means we evaluate our situation honestly, using the most unbiased tools at our disposal. This often means using data about our current market or audience to create a model. A model is simply a substitute for reality that we can use to better understand the real thing. A simple example may be an analysis of engagement for a brand’s 2015 social content, revealing what types of posts earned the most attention. The most effective models can do just short of predicting the future.
It sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Unbiased, unfeeling numbers revealing the truth with mechanical perfection. We can always rely on them to tell us what to do next, right? Wrong. It’s an easy trap to fall into as more and more of our “thinking” is automated and abstracted away. We cannot be complacent and think that a passive click of a button – at least if not done often enough – will give us all the answers. One thing that every data-driven communications professional needs to understand: our models are not reality; they are a separate entity. They become less accurate with time, as the system we are modeling does not remain the same. If our models continue to be rooted in whatever time period during which they are generated, then they will eventually be obsolete.
Why can this be such a problem for marketing and PR? It’s simple: a strategy needs to be adapted to time as much as any other factor. As an example, let’s recall the runaway success of Marcus Sheridan’s River Pools. As the blogger behind The Sales Lion, Marcus has frequently used his indoor pool business’ early adoption of digital marketing as a teaching tool. In 2008, their Virginia-based business took a big hit from the great recession. This was when Sheridan and his business partners decided to start a business blog where they would become a resource for customers and potential customers. They started off with a very direct application of “listen to the customer,” and answered customer questions in-depth on the blog. Fast forward to today, and their business’ website is one of the top trafficked websites in their industry. Do a quick search for “fiberglass pools” and see how high of a ranking River Pools has, if you want proof.
This very early application of content marketing came at the perfect time, in a number of ways. For River Pools, it was exactly what the business needed to survive the recession and grow. For the blogosphere, it came at a time when the demand for content on indoor pools was not met with a satisfactory supply. One could say that Marcus and his business partners found an unfilled niche. Their efforts are what we know of today as “content marketing.” If you’re willing to open up Google again, you’ll see that a search of “content marketing” brings up an incredible amount of recommendations from many different experts. Content marketing is no longer an untapped resource, and was far more effective during the inception of River Pool’s now famous blog.
To support this thought, let’s first look at the number of searches for “indoor pools” on Google, through Google Trends.
We see that interest in “fiberglass pools” remains fairly constant from 2006-present, subject only to seasonal fluctuations. We know from this that the WANT for content on indoor pools should be fairly constant throughout this time period, as well. The main change we see is in the amount of content available to those interested in indoor pools. Though this is hard to assess directly, the growth in the number of blogs through the last 5 years says a lot. Let’s now look at statistics from two major blogging platforms, WordPress and Tumblr:
That’s a lot of new content in the ecosystem, in just a few short years. Any new blog about indoor pools released today is likely to see a lot more competition than River Pools’ blog in 2008. Commenting on this saturation of the content space is nothing new, and anyone interested in further reading on the subject should check out Mark Schaefer’s content shock.
2008 to 2016 is a long time in the digital marketing world. It’s fairly obvious that a strategy from 2008 needs re-evaluation before seeing use in 2016. However, this extreme example offers a takeaway that can be useful for smaller periods of time: acting on a system changes the system. Because of the effect of River Pools’ blog and other blogs like it, there is now more content to meet demand. Mark Sheridan’s strategy in 2008 would not work today, just as a strategy from 2015 might not work in 2016, and so forth. A model is the truest at the time it is taken, and can provide a false representation of reality if used when obsolete. Since our strategy is based on our models – this makes it vital that we remember the importance of keeping them current.
There are a number of ways to go about doing this. The best place to start, unsurprisingly, is quite basic: stay up to date on changes happening in the PR and marketing space. Did Google or Facebook make an algorithm change that would render your current model obsolete? Did something shift in consumer behavior that requires a shift in your strategy? The answer will regularly be yes to these types of questions, but the only way you’ll be aware is to immerse yourself daily. This, along with making sure you’re in tune with your analytics and metrics, will help you see what’s working and what’s quickly fading.