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Is Art or Math More Important in PR?

I shouldn’t tell you this, but it’s a funny story. Do you know how I got into PR? I flipped through the course catalog to find a major that had the least amount of math involved. I liked to write and talk, so the classes in the PR major looked like a lot more fun than the ones in my original major of Economic Crime Investigation (think lots of accounting and economics). I never liked math in school. I took Algebra a couple of times – with the same teacher no less. I can’t help but feel like somebody is playing a cruel joke on me, as more and more of what we do in PR and marketing hinges on numbers.

I recently sat through a breakout session on the topic of analytics and social media ROI at SoCon10 in Atlanta, a social media “unconference” hosted by Kennesaw State University’s Center for Sustainable Journalism. One of the topics that came up in the discussion was how much of marketing is art versus math (hat tip to @lance for leading the discussion and bringing up this topic – you can find his presentation here).

It’s a great question if you think about it, as so much of what we consider success in marketing is based on the art of it all. If an ad or website looks great, it must be great. If a site gets more traffic this month than last month, it’s a success. If a press release generates 10 hits, it’s a success. So on and so forth. There is an art to what we do in marketing and PR, and that’s measured (hopefully) through analytics. This is where the math starts to come into play, as you need to be able to read the numbers related to your programs to see how things are performing. More and more professionals are stepping up to the plate with solid measurement programs.

Where the rubber really starts to hit the road is with testing. How do different versions of your campaign tactics perform side-by-side? Are you currently using A/B or split testing in your PR campaigns? How about multivariate testing? This is where both the art and science of what we do as marketers come into play. In discussions with social media-savvy PR professionals, the topic of testing is at the forefront of campaign planning right now. This is driven by the increased use of interactive marketing in PR programs today, and supported by the increased use of social media marketing by public relations professionals (where measurement and testing are always part of the equation).

In truth, few PR professionals have the ability to leverage testing or advanced analytics in their campaigns today. For the same reasons measurement has been so difficult to implement, such as no agreed-upon standards or lack of resources (time, people, and money), testing and analytics get put on the back burner. This is unfortunate, as it’s these areas where smart marketers can realize the most significant improvements in marketing ROI, and I believe it will be one of the fastest-growing segments of PR services in the years to come. The professionals and agencies that come to the table with more math and science than art will have a competitive advantage.

Imagine this scenario during the agency selection process. A client wants to know which newswire you use to distribute news for example. Agency A says “We have an account with XYZ and we use their social media features. We use this platform for all our clients.” Agency B says “We don’t make assumptions about which tactics will work best for you. We test all aspects of our programs to find the tactics that generate the best results for your limited resources – then we find ways to maximize your resources across the best performing tactics.” Which agency would you want to work with? I would choose Agency B, provided they really did what they said.

Math And Art, Not Math Or Art

This isn’t an either-or scenario. PR professionals and agencies need to have competencies in both the art and math of our profession. They still need to come up with the big ideas that will generate awareness, interest, and response in noisy markets, but also be able to measure test, and retest performance to continually reinvent the way they manage and optimize programs. So for those of you out there that scored high on both the math and verbal sections of your SAT, there is hope for you yet. And if you are a numbers wizard, and you’ve found yourself with an interest in PR or marketing, the future is full of opportunities for you in our profession.

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