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Despite ongoing debates about conducting research in public relations, a few companies have chosen to remain steadfast and fully commit to research, apply their findings and, as a result, become more efficient, strategic and successful.

Hyperbole over big data may suggest that data is the key to success, but many organizations that have raced to join the real-time, big data movement have discovered the critical difference between “having data” and “applying data,” as well as the unforeseen difficulties surrounding it. Companies who have flourished have done so because they transformed data to action through insights. Unfortunately, those who haven’t were left behind, as the vanguard moved on without them.

Uncovering actionable insights

Insights that drive meaningful decisions and create business value are precious, and technology and data aren’t enough. Philip B. Stark, professor and chair of statistics at the University of California, Berkeley, asserts that insights only come as a result of an essential triad, which combines critical thinking and statistics skills, subject matter expertise and access to the appropriate tools. Those who omit any one element place themselves in jeopardy. The proper balance is difficult to achieve, but the company that uncovers and acts on the best insights usually wins.

PR insights manifest themselves in two ways:

• They inform better PR decision-making, which improves communications results.

• They inform better organizational decision-making, which improves business results.

Committing to research

One of the few aforementioned companies that has committed itself to research is MasterCard.

In 2011, MasterCard’s executive leadership challenged the organization to transform its reputation as a B2B financial service giant into a more consumer-focused technology company. In order to achieve this, MasterCard created the “Conversation Suite” — a dynamic, global insights and engagement engine — built and supported by a global team of consultants and social experts who monitor, engage in and analyze conversations around the world. The social listening and analysis of public profile social data serve as a foundation for communication decision-making and as a barometer and resource to the business.

Applying insights

One demonstration of MasterCard’s ability to transform data into insights, actions and business results relates to its efforts in mobile payments. Despite the popular misconception, MasterCard does not issue credit cards — banks do. Instead, the company earns fees by making transactions and everyday commerce activities easier, more secure and efficient. Purchase volume is a business metric, and the speed and ease of mobile payments represent a compelling opportunity to drive transactions.

During a routine, weekly social media analysis report in 2012, PRIME’s data-focused communications team revealed consumers’ great excitement and anticipation for the emerging payments technology. But those who had already tried the technology expressed two sources of anxiety: how readily merchants would accept the payment method and the level of security. An even deeper statistical analysis showed that unease over acceptance had come about from certain vendors — taxi drivers and fast food restaurants primarily — and their inability to process mobile payments at the point of sale. There were also concerns over the security, centered on unfamiliarity with the technology and the possibility of data compromises.

The team shared these “voice of the customer” insights with others in the company. As a result, MasterCard altered the overall planning and execution of the mobile payment program by making the following changes:

1. Go-to market messaging and external communications were adapted in order to speak directly to the insights realized via social listening.

2. A global PR campaign was designed to promote and amplify the voice of the customer and to position MasterCard as the technology partner that consumers and merchants should trust with their mobile payments.

3. Customer care and response teams were set up to monitor online/social conversations related to mobile payments. The company proactively engaged with people when questions were raised and used the platform to build trust and brand loyalty.

Following the initial discovery, the company’s market research reported on a variety of customer satisfaction issues, one of which was mobile payments. The results confirmed the original social media findings, which served as an early indicator on the pulse of the customer that long-term traditional research methodologies later confirmed.

The 2013 global customer satisfaction study revealed that the feeling surrounding mobile payments had transitioned from skepticism to adoption. Mobile payment users drove 81 percent of conversations, as opposed to the year before, when only one-third of consumers who discussed the topic had actually used a product. The survey again confirmed the integrity of the social media insights. Most important, the volume of mobile payments accelerated.

In 2014, the third social media analysis showed that conversations had gone from “problem solved” to “what’s next?” It also revealed significant year-over-year improvements on a number of key performance indicators such as:

• Social chatter about mobile payments grew. In 2012, 85,000 identifiable mobile payment social conversations increased to 13,000,000 in 2013 and to 19,100,000 in 2014.

• Social sentiment about the new technology achieved its most positive ratings. In 2014, 94 percent of conversations were favorable globally, up 17 percent from 2013 and 24 percent from 2012.

• By 2014, these positive conversations centered on convenience rather than anxiety, as consumers shared their excitement around integrating the payment solution into their daily lives.

Over three years, MasterCard’s underlying social data fueled insights to shift consumer conversations away from questioning the availability and security of mobile options, to the possibilities of enhanced experiences through tech innovations on digital devices.

Andrew Bowins, MasterCard’s senior vice president of corporate reputation and engagement, stated: “Insights unlock an organization and shape culture, thinking and actions. In the age of real-time communications and engagement, companies need to listen twice as hard before they speak. This is what MasterCard is doing today, and, in turn, our ability to listen, learn and then engage has served as a catalyst for change and evolution in communications and across the way we operate as a company.”

Transforming data into insights

1. Monitor and integrate. Good data is essential. Data may come from a variety of sources including social and traditional media, blogs and survey results, along with business measures such as employee loyalty, customer retention and sales volume or, as in MasterCard’s case, transactions. These “small data” streams lead to “big data” insights when combined by expert data scientists.

2. Explore and investigate. The speed, volume and variety of conversations, topics and issues at a given time mean that everyone must pay attention to the thousands of mature and emerging issues bubbling around us.

3. Analyze and illuminate. Relying on talents, skills and tools, data scientists must collaborate with PR leadership to uncover gaps, unusual activity and other signs that require further inquiry. Reduce the many uncovered opportunities and instead focus on those with the greatest importance to the organization, and with the greatest opportunity for positive differentiation.

4. Share and initiate. Insights without action are the slowest path to victory. Since meaningful insights are rare, share them with peers to optimize your “ROI (return on insight)” and act on what you learn.

In conclusion, data drives value only when it derives insights that drive action. In this way, the strategic and tactical aspects of public relations are mutually reliant and equally important. And when shared and integrated, public relations can positively contribute to meaningful business results.