Jam tomorrow

There’s great value in putting research at the heart of communications planning as well as using it to justify the impact of last year’s campaign. In the first in a series of blogs about insight – leading to the publication of my new book Insightful in 2015 – welcome to the world of predictive analytics.

Scientists do research to test their hunches – that there’s a “God particle”, that new pills can make sad people happy, or that climate change is caused by human activity. They set out with a theory based on what they know already and they look for evidence that either supports or contradicts their theory. What they don’t do is look for “my-side” evidence to prove their beliefs.

Brand communicators could learn a thing or two from the scientific community. Communications research should be used in much the same way, and as such become part of the formal planning process. By properly understanding the dynamics of a sector or category’s conversation landscape, brand custodians can build evidence-based communications and engagement plans for tomorrow and next year; data-driven insights.

Tesco has been a pioneer in using research to anticipate and encourage customer behaviour. Working with Dunnhumby in a partnership that has endured nearly 20 years and seen Tesco seize and sustain market leadership, the supermarket has embraced the power of research to predict what customers do on an individual and an aggregated level. This results in tailored offers and coupons to Clubcard holders. It also shapes longer-term communications strategy across all channels and helps to ensure that one in every seven pounds spent on Britain’s high streets rings through Tesco’s tills, however hard the three post-Leahy Christmases have been.

Analysis of what has happened in a campaign and calculations of what benefit this has brought to a brand are increasingly important parts of all communicators’ toolkits. Every marketer needs to be fully conversant with ROI in order to justify this year’s expenditure and to secure next year’s budget. By looking in the rear-view mirror – by comparing the most recent campaign with previous activations and benchmarking performance against both competitors and peers in other sectors – companies build better, more resilient brands.

But using research to look backwards is only to do half the job that research can do. Where research turns into predictive analytics, when the learnings from previous campaigns actively shape future activations and channel selection, is where insights become genuinely actionable.

Using research – of customer conversation, segmentation, attitudes and beliefs – to drive and shape a brand’s narrative flow has been commonplace in ad agencies since JWT first developed planning as a stand-alone discipline in advertising in the late 1960s. The only surprise is that it’s taken quite so long for the use of research to become the new normal in the integrated brand planning, client side.

In the age of social media dialogue, influential and connected consumers, customers and stakeholders, inside and outside a business, help to shape brand perception and reputation; they are as involved in the brand management process as those paid to manage the brand as a day job. Judicious assessment and analysis of this conversation landscape enables marketers to factor in prevailing themes into a process of co-creation which puts research front and centre.

Many business leaders, trained in the analogue world of brand monologue, still feel intimidated by social and digital media. They lament the passing of one-way communication and find two-way dialogue an irritating imposition. This will not be an issue for the next, digitally-native generation of marketing leaders who have always used research and analytics to inform their communications strategy, often in real time.

The principal benefit of taking an evidence-based approach to planning comms engagement is that the plans that are developed are proportionate and relevant. Often – particularly for B2B companies – the volume, sentiment and resonance of conversation is too low to merit engagement. Yet without doing the research to assess that conversation, there could be a temptation to engage because it’s the Zeitgeist to do so. If there are no meaningful conversations taking place and no competitive advantage to be gained by engaging, research can demonstrate that staying quiet is indeed the right option.

By using research both to validate and to generate campaigns and ideas, brand teams have the opportunity to establish the totality of brand communication on the C-suite agenda and make communication everyone’s responsibility.

A longer version of this blog was originally written for Ebiquity’s Reputation practice.