Insights on Data: 5 Key Takeaways on Branding, PR and AI From the Meltwater Summit

Communications professionals often talk about data-driven programs, but what does that really mean? It’s no secret that there is more data than ever before – in 2021 alone we produced 97 zettabytes of data across the globe. And with new tools like ChatGPT and new social media platforms like Meta’s Threads hitting the market, the data is growing exponentially — expected to double by 2025. 

Now, all of that data isn’t directly relevant to communications, but at Mission North, the tools we use to assess audiences, social media and news media still give us access to trillions of data points. All of that data is meaningless, unless we know how to analyze it and make informed decisions with it. One of my team’s favorite data tools is Meltwater, a media, social, consumer and sales intelligence platform.

I was lucky enough to attend the recent Meltwater Summit in New York City, a confab of communications professionals interested in leveraging analytics. While the halls echoed with tales of Gen AI, there were other noteworthy conversations on how to meaningfully connect to consumers, break through the noise and make your brand relevant.

Here are five general themes that stood out to me:

Generative AI is an important part of the communications toolkit, but fails at authenticity.

While some people may want to dismiss Gen AI as “flawed” or “not ready for primetime,” there is no denying that we must adapt our PR and brand strategies to leverage it where it makes sense. A recent study from the public relations management tool Muck Rack found that 61% of PR professionals either already use AI or are interested in introducing it to their workflows. Nearly every speaker agreed that it can help communications professionals be more productive and save time. 

That can free us up to focus on the parts of our job we love most – telling stories, being creative and forming relationships. Communication is a human-to-human experience, which is most successful when it’s authentic. AI often fails when it tries to simulate that. When dealing with reporters and consumers — two critical and demanding audiences — a human touch is what’s needed. Guillaume Decugis, Head of Consumer Insights at Meltwater, said in one session that there are “high-value tasks that only humans can do.” He doesn’t believe “marketers will be replaced by AI, [though] marketers not using AI will be replaced by those who are.”

<split-lines>"Communication is a human-to-human experience, which is most successful when it’s authentic. AI often fails when it tries to simulate that."<split-lines>

Brands can’t fake values.

In his talk on consumer demands, James Wright, Global CEO at Red Havas, explained how we’re “living in [a] hyper-personalized, purpose era – one where brands need to be more meaningful than ever.” We are more connected than ever, which means more eyeballs on everything a company does. While this can be positive, consumers are more pessimistic and polarized than ever. What’s more, they expect brands to meaningfully contribute to the societal issues they care deeply about (like climate change and reproductive rights). Needless to say, they’ll see through a brand’s B.S.

Sheila Mulligan, Managing Director, Corporate Brand and Reputation at Edelman, discussed the results of the agency’s annual Trust Barometer, which found that businesses are the “only trusted institution around the world,” compared to non-governmental organizations, government and media (which respondents dubbed as “neutral” or “not trusted”). This puts pressure on brands to honor that trust. In the age of #MeToo and institutional racism, businesses that just share performative posts about social topics risk public backlash. Their social presence needs to demonstrate the work they are doing (and will do) to support important causes.

Darwinism in PR: adapt or die.

Red Havas’ Wright opened his talk by explaining that it’s never “been tougher to keep up with the changing behaviors, expectations and fast-paced communications … [in] our industry.” Consumer attention is fleeting — on average, readers only spend 148 seconds on news articles. Plus, in a shrinking media landscape – which saw a record number of layoffs in the first half of 2023 – corporate communicators essentially outnumber their journalist counterparts, and so are more outwardly competing for mindshare.

To do so, teams must be agile and prepared to shift their storytelling to new platforms and formats: Maybe you think you want a front page feature in the Wall Street Journal for your new product announcement; but data shows your engineering audience is more likely to listen to an industry podcast. So, targeted outreach will serve you better than casting a wide net.

It’s not the time to shy away from social media either. Not only are these platforms vital for reaching consumers, they’re also a key connection point for journalists. Within a week of the launch of Threads, Meta’s answer to Twitter, Muck Rack recognized over 40,000 journalists registered in its database. Shawna Thomas, Executive Producer of “CBS Mornings,” noted: “Journalists have to work kind of like influencers” due to the credibility and reach influencers now have. (In fact, a recent study from Matter Communications found 69% of consumers trust influencers, friends and family over brands.)

<split-lines>"It’s not the time to shy away from social media either. Not only are these platforms vital for reaching consumers, they’re also a key connection point for journalists."<split-lines>

Being a disruptive and innovative brand requires calculated risks.

If you want your brand to break through, you can't always take the safe route. We heard from Duolingo’s Global Social Media Manager, Zaria Parvez, about navigating “calculated risks.” Parvez is the creative mind behind Duolingo’s viral TikTok strategy, and said she takes time to engage with her audience’s comments, listens to their input on trends, and then produces content they want. The results are profound – the site has garnered over 149 million likes on TikTok with just a two-person social media team and a “dusty owl costume” (the iconic Duo mascot).

Data unlocks audience insights and informs strategy.

What resonated with me most from the two-day conference is the sheer importance of data in grasping an audience. This stuck with me because at Mission North, audience analysis is one of the cornerstones of our research and insights program — and helps our teams build specific client strategies. 

<split-lines>"At Mission North, audience analysis is one of the cornerstones of our research and insights program — and helps our teams build specific client strategies."<split-lines>

Audience data can be applicable to any aspect of a PR program. For instance, Grace De La Mare and Shannon Guess, two members of the marketing team at U.S. carrier Allegiant Air, spoke about how “nano-influencers” are usually more impactful than general influencers with mega followings (think “Kim K.” or Steph Curry) because they have dedicated, engaged audiences and know how to develop authentic content that will resonate (at a much better price point).

Overall, the most important part of data analysis is being able to understand who your audience is, where they turn to for information and inspiration, what they care about and who they trust – and then meeting them there versus shouting into a void.

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