IBM expert: Comms pros must become data scientists

Communicators must embrace their role as strategists, storytellers and scientists to succeed. Data is at the heart of it all.

Did you know that when it rains, people eat more pie than cake? After all, pie is comfort food on a dreary day, notes IBM’s Brandi Boatner.

Likewise, when high winds blow, people eat more TV dinners. That’s because when the weather is blustery, consumers are inclined to hunker down at home and excavate a prefab meal from the freezer.

Such information would clearly be useful to Pillsbury or Swanson. But how could anyone find out such details in the first place?

The answer is simple: data, says Boatner, who is Big Blue’s social media and influencer communications lead for global markets and its brand communications manager. (It helps that IBM owns The Weather Co.) She offered her insights Wednesday at Ragan’s Future of Communications Conference in Chicago.

“You should know everything about your audience—I mean everything about your audience,” says Boatner, who bills herself as the Beyonce of the Business World. “You’re a mix of strategist, storyteller and scientist … but you need to look at data for trends.”

Boatner offered tips to help communicators distinguish simple vanity metrics from the useful data that enable trendspotting.

New skills required

Boatner called for communicators to master a new skillset to match the new data capabilities, as social media evolves every day to add features and tweak algorithms.

By 2020 (and that’s less than two months away, folks), 1.7 megabytes will be created every second for every person on earth, Boatner says. Every day we generate 2.5 quintillion bytes of data, and 90% of the world’s data has been created in the last two years alone. In one minute on the internet, people download 390,000 apps, post 3.3 million Facebook items and add 2.1 million snaps to Snapchat.

This tsunami of data affords communications pros the opportunity to amplify their stories and share their narrative to a wider audience through online platforms.

Boatner notes that the communicator’s job requires three sets of skills:

  • Strategist: You must deeply understand the culture, social behavior and theory that informs messaging, she says.

Storyteller: Influence your audience’s behavior by telling a great story. “If I took a shot for every time I heard ‘storyteller,’ I would black out like 15 times over,” she jokes. That said, she goes on, “You are a storyteller. You have the ability to influence an audience to do something based on a story.”

  • Scientist: With the vast amounts of data, communicators have no choice. Develop the best measurement framework for your campaign through digital intelligence and analysis, she says.

‘Judge a man by his questions’

Boatner cites the French author and thinker Voltaire, who said, “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”

“We don’t ask the right questions, because we’re so focused on the answers,” she says. “And when the data doesn’t give us the answer that we want, we become Jackie Collins, and we make up fiction.”

Before you plan a campaign around that super-exciting white paper you dreamed up, did you figure out whether it’s what your target audience wants?  Do you know if influencers are talking about the issue? Do you know if it is a trend?

“It is a moment in time,” she says. “Is it a milestone? What are the stats? What’s the historical data? Are you asking the right questions? I would say nine times out of 10 we’re not asking the right questions.”

She suggests that you craft key questions as part of your overall campaign and think about how data can help tell that story. Ask:

  • Are we looking for trends or connection points?
  • Do we know what our audience currently thinks or feels about a product, service or topic?
  • What have the historical or marketplace data revealed about this campaign?
  • Who are the influencers?

Like the pie-on-a-rainy-day analysts, you should find out everything about your customer or audience, Boatner urges. She recommends several free tools for data discovery that can aid social media intelligence: Google TrendsGoogle Analytics, social media mentions, Trendsmaps (which tracks trending hashtags and topics on Twitter) and individual platforms.

When your senior leaders ask where you stand in the market, Boatner suggests organizing data into three buckets: historical, competitive and marketplace. Historical data will tell you how your brand is doing year over year or month over month. Competitive data can boost your case that you have a greater share of voice than dastardly Brand X does.

Finally, you must understand what the market is doing.

“Data is everything,” Boatner says. “Data can help you identify your audiences and meet them where they are.”

That way, you’re more likely to increase your organization’s share of the pie.


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