Marion McDonald
Dec 11, 2012

OPINION: Insights critical for effective PR, but must go beyond 'bleeding obvious'

Insights into target stakeholders are as important in PR as they are in creative campaigns—and just as hard to achieve, according to Marion McDonald, Asia-Pacific managing director for strategy and measurement, Ogilvy Public Relations.

OPINION: Insights critical for effective PR, but must go beyond 'bleeding obvious'

One of the drivers of success in public relations, learned over many years, is that our best campaigns—those that deliver beyond stakeholder engagement and media coverage to create lasting behavior change—are linked to the quality of our underlying insight into consumer or other target stakeholder attitudes. A well-researched and clearly expressed insight as the basis for a creative PR idea is a far greater driver of success than a brilliant ‘PR-able’ idea alone.

This may seem so obvious a conclusion for effective PR that you may well be questioning why you should bother to read on or why I invested any time writing about it.

Closing a year of new business pitches and ongoing briefs where often just one to two weeks is allowed for the agency to develop a strategic response to often complex business challenges requiring a major shift in public opinion, I question whether this approach is truly shared by marketers. I fear we are falling into a trap of 'Give us a big "PR-able" idea FAST!'.

Often considered the domain of advertising creative development, insights are equally the backbone of a successful creative PR idea as they provide a fresh understanding of a situation or trend that moves our thinking from what it is to what it means. This can often solve how to crack the current ‘stuck’ behaviour or attitude with a provocative new way of framing a situation that sparks word of mouth and builds support for change.

A powerful insight reveals why consumers or target stakeholders (regulators, community groups, reporters, investors, etc) think, believe or do certain things, which can help to reframe new desired behaviour against our current beliefs. Effective PR campaigns stem from an insight that is relevant and causes our target audience to rethink and hopefully discuss their beliefs or attitudes on a brand or category.

The investment in developing an insight as a basis for PR ideas is a valuable differentiator. This depth of stakeholder research and strategic thinking is what distinguishes effective PR strategies from ideas that clients could brainstorm themselves with a flipchart and a spare hour. The value in working with a professional public relations agency lies in the time and expertise its people can invest in connecting with target audience stakeholders to immerse themselves in the challenge from their perspective and map the ‘stuck points’ to gaining support and/or behaviour change.

Let me clarify what I mean by a great insight though. Insights are not merely facts or observations from research, or reading a few bloggers' online comments.

“New mums are under pressure and time poor” or “Hong Kong consumers trust recommendations from celebrities” are both messages from the Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious, not any kind of insight. These are freely available. They do not illuminate anything, and every competitor in a category most likely has the same information. Great insights come from research, judgment and experience:

  • Research helps us define what it is
  • Insights help us define interpret why it is and what it means
  • The creative idea is how we connect it together to engage stakeholders at points relevant to their work, leisure or family moments where the topic becomes relevant

If you understand how to play “join the dots” then you have the basic skills to build an insight. Once you’re given the numbers, and you start to connect them, the picture becomes obvious. Digging for insights is essentially searching for the numbers and arranging them to facilitate spotting the insight.

So where do you get the numbers from? That’s the hard work in searching for insights—searching for the dots to connect. We start by reviewing all existing knowledge and consumer research our client may already have. Often public relations clients don’t see the relevance of their consumer research to PR messaging, so they may not think to share the research. We must proactively seek out existing knowledge.

Then we immerse ourselves in consumer behavior—their likes and frustrations about the category, their true behaviour in the category. We try to experience the category as they do.

A word of caution here: The only way you can find insights stuck behind a computer is through social-media listening. Start with a conversation audit to understand how the category is described—the joys and frustrations with each brand, how people search the category. Factor in Google Insights, if you really must.

Use more advanced social media for instant research. For example, Cadbury uses the circles function on its Google+ page brilliantly to gain consumer insights on different topics. They hold fun Hangouts with select circles of trusted customers for insights and to test ideas.

Go out on ‘home visits’ to see how the category/brand is used in situ. In-home visits proved very useful in the room air freshener category, where we uncovered that many plug-in air fresheners are concealed behind sofas, which meant consumers did not notice when they ran out.

Work in your client’s store for half a day as a sales trainee. When I led marketing at Revlon China, we ensured all our marketing staff worked as a department store counter beauty advisor regularly to stay in touch with consumer needs, questions and issues with the colour cosmetics category. Alternatively, work in your client’s office for a half day to observe the culture. What do they discuss about the category?

I absolutely love going out with a sales rep for a day, especially in B2B and pharmaceuticals, where you often cannot experience the category or medical condition directly but can hear it from an experienced salesperson and their customers. So many new learnings came from sales rep visits to clinics when I was marketing director for Botox!

Interview customers/consumers. Ask everyone you know if they use the category and have your 10 questions ready for them. If it’s a brand with a consumer call centre, ask to listen in on their call centre/complaint line for a few hours to understand brand frustrations.

The time invested in this planning stage speeds up the idea-generation stage considerably, giving you time savings normally spent on generating many more ideas to narrow down the problem to be solved.

As David Ogilvy said of finding big ideas, “Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process.” This is no different for uncovering insights. Information needs time to percolate.

Another benefit of investing this time in getting to know your client’s target audience more deeply is the bond created by learning to care more deeply about client business problems the same way they do.

An insight should reveal something to the client that they may not have recognised by themselves. It should immediately make sense to them and spark an ‘Aha!’ emotional response. It should help consumers/customers make connections which they may not have previously. Get an edge to the insight in a way that makes consumers respond with 'Yes, that’s so true, and if I’m honest I’ve never thought of it like that myself'.

Express insights simply and brilliantly. This is, in effect, a copywriting exercise and often benefits from working with a professional copywriter. My tips:

  • Use short, sharp sentences.
  • Be category specific: Get to the point versus vague general issues like feeling “time poor”.
  • Avoid hard sell: It’s about the concept, not the strapline
  • Use emotion.

Here’s an example from our work at Ogilvy Public Relations that we have had great success with in both Australia and the USA.

Huggies’ consumer research highlighted that motherhood brings out a new set of needs. Mums frequently say “I wish I had a product that could…”. For some, the change in life stage combined with being at or working from home results in the ability to actually create that imagined product.

This led to the insight that some mums are very inventive in their new circumstances, adapting existing products to do what they need better, or dreaming up and designing products they wish they had as a new business opportunity. This has given birth (pun intended!) to a new breed of “mum-preneurs” enabled by the internet.

Thus the insight became : While all mums are inventive, some mums become inventors

The big idea that grew out of this insight was the Huggies MumInspired Grant Program. Huggies tapped the inner inventor and engaged with mums who wanted funding to launch their new product ideas, making Huggies their first choice as a partner in motherhood.

In Australia, the campaign generated 15 million media impressions in a country of 23 million people, and four times the target number of grant applications.

Insights can fuel a thousand ideas also extending to new products, new services, new campaigns that change behavior, encourage loyalty—whatever we are after. So don’t forget if your insight sparks other ideas to bring these to the client also.

We do need to be conscious that insights don’t always travel across cultures and local knowledge is essential to determine human truths from cultural truths.

The most critical step is getting out of the office to find the dots. Then investing the time to connect them to build a strong insight that underpins our ideas and creates behaviour change that will positively impact our client’s business. This is personally far more satisfying to work on than meeting the one- to two-week pitch deadline once again.

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