I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this one: “I don’t do numbers. That’s why I’m in PR!” It gets a laugh every time.

I can appreciate self-deprecation as much as the next person, but this particular joke has always rubbed me the wrong way. For one, PR is an industry dominated by women. And as women, it’s hard enough to earn respect without getting in our own way.

The other reason is that a familiarity with numbers can help us do our jobs better—a truth that becomes more salient with each passing day.

Before I say too much more, let’s get something straight. I’m by no means an expert statistician or data scientist. Nor do I know everything I think I should know about the way numbers work.

But I am constantly trying to refresh and learn. Because, while I may never again have to think about imaginary numbers or multivariable calculus in the “real world” (fingers crossed), I do need to have a basic understanding of how to interpret data. And as the world of marketing and communications becomes more data-driven, I have to be able to carry on smart conversations with those who ARE deep in the analytics.

Why Here, Why Now

For marketers, the shift to a more data-friendly mindset is both a push and a pull.

On the push side, there are increasing expectations across organizations for more data-driven decision-making. Marketing and PR are no exceptions. Even creatives are expected to do more than stick a wet finger in the air. Clever alone doesn’t get results. You have to be smart too.

On the pull side, data is everywhere. As more and more business activity goes online, customers are leaving behind more data about their interests and behaviors. Smart companies are leveraging that data to better engage with their customers at critical points in their purchasing journey. In other words, big data means big opportunity for those willing to play the game.

It’s no wonder content marketing has become such a powerful part of the marketing toolkit. Savvy marketers no longer have to take an educated guess as to which content their audiences will find most useful. Now we can test and optimize to form more mutually beneficial relationships with customers and prospects, even before and between commercial transactions.

At the end of the day, more data means better targeting and an ability to optimize our efforts — and thus our marketing spend — in near real-time. It also means an ability to more closely link marketing and PR to business results, which in turn means more funding and more respect. With better data, marketing is starting to be recognized as part of the strategic core of a business, not just an add-on function that supports the “real” work of the business.

What You Can Do

If you’re convinced that it’s time to make nice with data, here are a few things to think about:

  • It doesn’t hurt to start with the basics. Before you start evaluating data tools or vendors or even data hires, you might want to take a moment to brush up on some basic statistics terms and concepts. This can help you ask better questions and put a more critical eye toward any decisions you need to make.

The good news here is you’re not the only noob in town. There are a lot of easily digestible primers to choose from. I picked up a copy of Charles Wheelan’s Naked Statistics before a cross-country flight a while back and spent the next six hours completely engrossed. Taking remedial statistics does not have to be a painful experience.

  • The quality of your data matters. As the saying goes, it’s better to be roughly right than to be precisely wrong. Keep that in mind. Also remember that more data isn’t always better. When trying to figure out what data tools to use, start by thinking through what decisions you need to inform. If your data isn’t going to help answer real business questions, is it really worth the trouble?
  • A data-driven world requires data-savvy people. If you’re hiring new people into your PR or marketing team, consider seeking out candidates from non-traditional backgrounds. For example, candidates with a social science background should already be familiar with hypothesis testing and statistical significance — concepts that may be foreign to someone with a pure communications background. Obviously, you’ll have to consider candidates on a case-by-case basis, but it doesn’t hurt to cast your net in more data-savvy pools.
  • It takes time to form new habits. Thinking and talking about data won’t necessarily come naturally, so keep at it. Whenever you’re faced with a decision, ask yourself or your team: What does the data tell us? You won’t always have all the data you need for a clear-cut answer, but even asking the question can help you think through your options in a more rational way. And, when you are missing critical data, asking the right questions can help ensure you’re making the most effective use of your research dollars.
  • You are still master of your domain. You can’t cherry pick your data to support a predetermined direction. But at the same time, it’s healthy to approach your data with a certain amount of skepticism. If something doesn’t pass your expert smell test, it’s time to take a closer look: Are there errors in the data? Is the source reliable? Do other sources corroborate these findings? Even in this data-driven era, smart communications campaigns still require a blend of art and science, which means your years of expertise as a marketer are not for naught.


Some marketing veterans will look at our new data-driven reality and feel overwhelmed. Others will feel energized. We’d love to hear your take. What worries you in this world of ubiquitous data? What excites you?

Photo courtesy of Eric Fischer.

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