It’s Time to Get Personal

Photo Source: Creative Commons 0 (CC0)

When Al Golin cold-called McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc in the 1950s, he pitched a big idea.  Instead of relying on mass-market advertising, Golin suggested McDonald’s could build its business through public relations, earning the attention of journalists who wielded vast influence over large swaths of the U.S. population.

With just a handful of media outlets in every community, consumers in those days had few more relevant information sources than their local newspapers, radio and TV stations. Al typed press releases and often walked them into the Chicago Tribune, regaling editors with stories of Kroc’s innovations or McDonald’s investments in communities.

Al’s idea was fit for the times and it worked. By sharing the company’s tales with journalists in Chicagoland and beyond, Al helped Ray build one of the world’s most recognizable brands and demonstrated PR’s power to earn the attention of huge portions of the population.

Six decades have passed since Al’s famous cold call and the way individuals gather information is forever changed. But most people still define public relations solely as sharing stories with the masses, shaping culture through media coverage with massive reach.  The “P” in “PR” stands for “public” after all.

Working with influencers – now including journalists, YouTubers, Instagrammers, celebrities, and even brand fans – remains a powerful way to distribute information, and no other discipline is as skilled at earning widespread attention via influencers more efficiently.  But to remain relevant to today’s information seekers, public relations must also earn attention through different means: personal relations.

Today’s empowered consumer seeks stories and information that matter to her or him in the moment, especially as they narrow their consideration set and move closer to purchase.   Search makes answers to relevant questions a tap away.  Bots respond instantly to consumer needs.  And voice activated tools like Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant and Cortana promise to make tailored information accessible simply by asking for it.  At the same time, technology helps people block out information that’s irrelevant to their personal needs.  Globally, about 1 in 3 people already use ad blocking tools.  Only information that’s deemed relevant keeps their attention and compels them to act.

Earning attention isn’t only achieved by pitching relevant stories to credible third parties, but also by reaching stakeholders directly with relevant information when and where each person needs it.

In November, Unilever’s Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Keith Weed shared important advice for brands in Think With Google: market to and communicate with segments of one.  But many PR pros may feel that is easier said than done, or someone else’s job.

Historically, advertisers and publicists alike were content to shape stories for, and distribute them to, very broad segments.  Women 25-54.  Food enthusiasts.  Health-minded consumers.  But these seemingly homogenous groups are comprised of individuals, each with unique needs and often at very different places in the complex customer journey.  The Internet empowers those we hope to reach with tools to find just what they need, just when they need it.  And it’s our job as marketers and communicators to understand them at a personal level and be present precisely where we can be relevant.

Technology makes laser-focused marketing and communication possible, and highly effective.  A recent study from Accenture indicates 81 percent of consumers want brands to get to know them personally.  And they reward companies who deliver, with 3 out of 5 consumers more likely to make repeat purchases from those that deliver personalized content and experiences.

Does this spell the end of “big” campaigns that put a dent in culture?  Will we neglect influencers who appeal to giant audiences?  Of course not.  But today, PR and marketing pros must create hybrid programs that earn attention and provide utility at both mass and personal levels, at every stop in the customer journey.  As Seth Godin said, “Powerful communications are anticipated, personal, and relevant.”

It’s time to redefine “PR” for the connected age, as one part “public” relations, one part personal relations.  The most powerful, progressive strategies incorporate both.

5 Quick Tips to Add Personal Relations to Your Plans:

  • Redefine your audiences. Identify smaller segments of stakeholders and understand their specific needs.  Data from social listening, search trends, website behaviors, and engagement with brand-owned content provide rich clues for the individuals hiding inside homogenous segments.
  • Know the journey. Map out how these different micro-segments get information and purchase your products and services.  The customer journey is critical for designing programs that reach people at both a mass and personal level.
  • Merge mass storytelling and 1:1 techniques. Do you have a shot to tell your story on GMA or in the Financial Times?  Terrific!  But consider how your narratives can also be broken down and tailored to the unique needs of individuals. Broader narratives should be complemented by more nuanced storytelling that addresses unique needs of individuals.
  • Reframe stories as answers to questions. The empowered consumer isn’t passive, but rather seeks out information on their own.  Identify the questions individuals in each micro-segment are asking and be present in the places and times they’re asking them.
  • Test, (re)learn and optimize. Savvy communicators and marketers recognize that segments and their unique needs are constantly evolving.  Regularly adapt definitions of target audiences and the content and distribution strategies which reach them most effectively. The people you reached last quarter and the means used to engage them might not work this quarter, so be open to change.

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