Do you know what “neuroplasticity” is? It’s essentially the brain’s ability to “rewire” itself by forming new neural connections when it needs to. Or, in other words, it’s what happens when the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain start to find new ways to connect with and “talk to” each other, when the old pathways are no longer there (for example, because of injury, or disease).
If you read up on it (for example, via Wikipedia, the God of All Thesauri) you’ll learn that the concept of neuroplasticity is relatively new; up until the late 20th century it was believed that after about early childhood, the structure of the brain didn’t change. That, basically, we were stuck with what we had as kids. Isn’t that a ghastly thought?!
One of the things I find most fascinating about the practice of PR in the digital age is how we are rewiring the discipline, our practice of it and some of the earlier assumptions that went unchallenged for a long time, much in the way the brain rewires itself when it has to. Because it knows the “old” way of life has disappeared, and in order to successfully function, it has to adapt to a new world.
However, in rewiring our discipline, I think sometimes we get a little too close to throwing out tried and true principles, simply because they’ve been around for a while. That’s a big mistake. Certainly, the tools and platforms we use on a daily basis are changing quickly. And, in fact, there is a fundamental shift in how we should be approaching building and maintaining relationships with our audiences. But one of the constants in creating and implementing effective PR programs, even in the 21st century, is what the basis is for those programs in the first place.
And that is research.
With the advent of social media and digital platforms, I’ve seen far too many practitioners—and, frankly, companies too, some of them quite large ones—get extremely excited over the SNTs (shiny new toys). So much so, that they start to dream up public relations programs using X platform, or Y tool… forgetting that a good program needs to be grounded in research. That is the only way we can build solid programs that can grow.
One of the great advantages of living and working in the digital age is that now it is so much easier to conduct research, thanks to a plethora of digital tools. Now, I’m absolutely not saying traditional research methodologies should be thrown out, like the proverbial baby with the bathwater. But we have more ways to conduct research than ever before. Many of them are free, or low-cost… so why not take advantage of them? However, once again, how we use digital tools and channels for research should be determined by what exactly we are researching for. Here are just some ways (and reasons) to do this:
- Researching your content strategy: for many companies, a blog is a large part of that strategy. But you want to publish blog posts that resonate with your customers and prospects, right? So why not ask them what they want to hear about? If nothing else, they will appreciate the fact that you asked them… and that, in and of itself, goes a long way in building a relationship.
How to do this: you can do this on your Facebook Page (the Arment Dietrich “Facebook Question of the Week” feature is a great example), on Twitter, on Google+… anywhere you have built up a community that is engaged enough to reply to you. Use that intelligence to populate your posts. Go a step further by incorporating the authors of the responses into your posts (with their permission, if the conversation took place on a private forum). They’ll be thrilled, they’ll help you share and generate conversation around it, and are likely to become your staunchest community supporters.
- Keyword research: this continues to be important for search engine optimization (SEO) when you’re building your website or blog—that’s a given. But it’s also a great way to learn what other, relevant bloggers are writing about. In other words, smart keyword research is at the core of your listening program.
How to do this: for starters, Marketwired has some excellent tools to help you with your listening program. You can also set up a regular email or RSS alert for the relevant keywords (try Talkwalker, it’s great), and that comes to your inbox on a regular basis (I was also able to tweak Talkwalker so that the results are fed to Feedly, which is my preferred alternative to Google Reader now that the latter is being sunset). This is now a triple threat: you a) stay abreast of what is being published; b) put your own, unique stamp on the subject when you write your posts; and c) build relationships with said other bloggers by commenting on their posts… all of which form a three-pronged approach to building thought leadership in the digital space.
- Focus groups: when you launch a new product or service, you want to make sure it will be well received by the target market, right? And the best way of estimating the response once you actually get to market is to try and approximate that market ahead of time.
How to do this: ask a few people whose opinions you respect (and who are representative of your target audience) if they would be willing to act as a beta testing group for you. Create a private, invitation-only forum in a social space they are comfortable in, e.g. a Facebook Group or a Google+ community, and make that where you show them what you’re working on, and secure their feedback. I actually recently went through this process myself as I was getting a makeover for the online home of my social PR micro agency, and it made a huge difference to the final outcome.
There are several other tools you can use, from Twtpoll, to online surveys (I imagine you’re familiar with Survey Monkey and Zoomerang, but there are several others; Qualtrics is a platform I like very much), to everything in between.
The key is to use the right tool for the right kind of research. So what might work really well for editorial calendar, or a blog post, research, might have disastrous results if used to generate “data” about how Americans feel about apple pie (for example). When in doubt, commission a “real” researcher or research firm to help you out; but please don’t avoid the initial, research phase of your PR planning.
That’s one type of rewiring we’ll be better off without.
Shonali Burke is president and CEO of a micro PR agency that successfully helps businesses take their communications from corporate codswallop to community cool. She founded and curates the popular #measurePR Twitter chat, is an adjunct faculty member at The Johns Hopkins University’s M.A./Communication program, and blogs at Waxing UnLyrical.