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Strategic Insights and Clickworthy Content Development

Category: Marketing

Why Surveys Should Be Structured Differently

keyboard-417093_1280If you’re anything like me, you’re often asked to participate in surveys.  Some of them are short and simple.  Others are very long, very complicated, or both.

You may also design and implement surveys from time to time like I do.   If you want some insight into the effectiveness of your survey designs and their outcomes, pay attention to the responses you get.

Notice the Drop-off Points

Complicated surveys that take 15 or 20 minutes to complete tend to reflect drop off points at which the respondents decided that the time investment required wasn’t worth whatever incentive was offered.  After all, not everyone actually cares about survey results or a  1-in-1,000 chance of winning the latest iPad, for example.  If there’s no incentive whatsoever, long and complicated surveys may  be even less successful, even if you’re pinging your own  database.

A magazine publisher recently ran such a survey, and boy, was it hairy.  It started out like similar surveys, asking questions about the respondent’s title, affiliation, company revenue and size.  It also asked about purchasing habits – who approves, who specifies, who recommends, etc. for different kinds of technologies.  Then, what the respondent’s content preferences are for learning about tech (several drop-down menus), using tech (several drop-down menus), purchasing tech (several drop-down menus), and I can’t remember what else.  At that point, one was about 6% done with the survey.  So much for “10 – 15 minutes.”  It took about 10 or 15 minutes just to wade through the first single-digit percent of it.  One would really want a slim chance of winning the incentive to complete that survey.

In short, the quest to learn everything about everything in one very long and complex survey may end in more knowledge about who took the survey than how how people feel about important issues.

On the flip side are very simple surveys that take a minute or two to answer.  Those types of surveys tend to focus on whether a customer is satisfied or dissatisfied with customer service, rather than delving into the details of opinions about several complicated matters.

Survey design is really important.  Complex fishing expeditions can and often do reflect a lack of focus on the survey designer’s part.

Complex Surveys May Skew Results

Overly complicated surveys may also yield spurious results.  For example, let’s say 500 people agree to take a survey we just launched that happens to be very long and very complex.  Not all of the respondents will get past the who-are-you questions because those too are complicated.  Then, as the survey goes on, more people drop, then more.

The result is that  X% of of the survey responses at the end of the survey are not the same as X% earlier in the survey.  What I mean by that is 500 people started, maybe 400 get past the qualification portion, and the numbers continue to fall as yet more complicated questions arise but  the “progress bar” shows little forward movement.  By the end of the survey, far less than 500 have participated, maybe 200  or 100.

Of course, no one outside the survey team knows this, including the people in the company who are presented with the survey results.  They only know that 500 people participated in the survey and X% said this or that.

However, had all 500 people answered all the questions, the results of some of the questions would likely look slightly or considerably different, which may be very important.

Let’s say 150 people completed our  survey and the last question asked whether they planned to purchase an iPhone 7 within the next three months.  40% of them or 60 respondents said yes.  If all 500 survey respondents answered that same question, I can almost guarantee you the answer would not be 40% .  It might be close to 40% or it might not be even close to 40%.

So, if you genuinely care about divining some sort of “truth” from surveys, you need to be mindful about how to define and structure the survey and that the data you see may not be telling you the entire story, or even an accurate story.

The point about accuracy is very important and one that people without some kind of statistical background likely haven’t even considered because they’re viewing all aggregate numbers as having equal weight and equal accuracy.

I, for one, think that survey “best practices” are going to evolve in the coming years with the help of data science.  While the average business person knows little about data science now, in the future it will likely seem cavalier not to consider the quality of the data you’re getting and what you can do to improve the quality of that data.  Your credibility and perhaps your job may depend on it.

In the meantime, try not to shift the burden of thinking entirely to your survey audience because it won’t do either of you much good.  Think about what you want to achieve, structure your questions in a way that gives you insight into your audience and their motivations (avoid leading questions!), and be mindful that not all aggregate answers are equally accurate or representative, even within the same survey.

What Retailers Know About You

Retailers now have access to more information than ever. They’re using loyalty cards, cameras, POS transaction data, GPS data, and third-party data in an effort to get shoppers to visit more often and buy more. The focus is to provide better shopping experiences on a more personalized level. Operationally speaking, they’re trying to reduce waste, optimize inventory selection, and improve merchandising.

The barrier to personalized experiences is PII (personally identifiable information), of course.

“[What retailers know about you] is still largely transaction-based,” said Dave Harvey, VP of Thought Leadership, branding and retail services provider Daymon. “Information about lifestyles, behaviors and attitudes are hard for retailers to get themselves so they partner with companies and providers that have those kinds of panels, especially getting information about how people are reacting through social media and what they’re buying online.”

Transactions Are Driving Insights

The most powerful asset is a retailer’s transactional database. How they segment data is critical, whether it’s transaction-based reach, frequency, lifestyle behaviors, or product groupings. Retailers can identify how you live your life based on the products you buy.

“The biggest Achille’s heel of transaction data, no matter how much you’re segmenting it and how much you’re mining it, is you’re not seeing what your competitors are doing,” said Harvey. “Looking at transaction data across your competition becomes critical.”

As consumers we see the results of that in offers, which may show up in an app, email, flyer or coupons generated at the POS.

Social media scraping has also become popular, not only to gauge consumer sentiment about brands and products, but also to provide additional lifestyle insight.

Some retailers are using predictive and prescriptive analytics to optimize pricing, promotions and inventory. They also have a lot of information about where their customers are coming from, based on credit card transactions. In addition, they’re using third party data to understand customer demographics, including the median incomes of the zip codes in which customers live.

They’re Watching Your Buying Patterns

Retailers monitor what shoppers buy over time, including items they tend to buy together, such as shirts and ties or eggs and orange juice. The information helps them organize shelves, aisles, and end caps.

“There’s a lot of implications for meal solutions and category adjacencies, how people are shopping in the store, how that might lead a retailer test way to offer a right combination of products to create a solution somewhere in the store,” said Harvey. “You can’t be everything to everyone, so how can the information help you prioritize where to focus? The information you can mine from your transaction database, your loyalty card database can help you become more efficient.”

Information about buying patterns and price elasticity allows retailers to micro-target so effectively that shoppers visit the store more often and spend more money.

They May Know How You Shop the Store

Shopping carts and baskets are a necessary convenience for customers, although the latest ones include sensors that track customers’ paths as they navigate through the store.

“They can get the path data and purchase data about how much time you spend at stations, and they can use it to redesign the store or and get you move through the store much more because they know the more you move through the store the more you buy,” said PK Kannan, a professor of marketing science at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Retailers also use cameras to optimize merchandising to better understand customer behavior including where they go and how long they stay. Now they’re also analyzing facial expressions to determine one’s state of mind.

Driving Business Value from Analytics

Different kinds of analytics result in different ROI. If a retailer is just starting out, Kannaan recommends starting with loyalty cards since other types of data capture and analysis can be prohibitively expensive and the analysis can be cumbersome.

“The ROI on loyalty cards is pretty good,” said Kannaan. “The initial ROI is going to be high and then as you go into more of these cart or visual data, video data, your ROI is going to level off.”

Strategies also differ among types of retailers. For example, a specialty retailer will want data that provides deep insight into the category and shoppers of that category versus a store such as Walmart that carries items in many different categories.

“If you’re a retailer trying to sell a ton of categories you want to understand how people are talking about their shopping experience,” said Harvey. “There’s still a lot of untapped opportunity in understanding social media as it relates to doing better analysis with retailers.”

They’re Innovating

Retailers are working hard to understand their customers, so they can provide better shopping experiences. While personalization techniques are getting more sophisticated, there’s only so far they can go legally in many jurisdictions.

Kannan said a way of getting around this is to take all the informational content, remove any PII, and then extract the resulting information out of the data.

“It’s like I’m taking the kernel from this thing because I don’t have the space to store it and keeping it is not a good policy, so I am going to keep some of the sufficient statistics with me and as new data comes in, I’m going to combine the old data with new data and use it for targeting purposes,” said Kannan. That’s becoming more of a possibility now, and also it’s a reality because data volumes are increasing like crazy. That way I don’t have to store all the data in a data lake.”

Insurance Struggles with Lead Gen & Data Analytics

The International Institute for Analytics (IIA) recently published a report stating that the insurance industry was the least mature of 12 vertical markets it studied. Insurance companies have lots of data, but they’re having trouble making sense of it.

“We have this data, but we can’t make heads or tails of it because we have data integration problems and there’s no data governance,” said Samantha Chow, senior analyst at market research firm Aite Group. “[Insurance carriers] are hiring data analysts and data scientists, but it’s very fragmented. They don’t have the support they need [to improve] their targeting, products, pricing — all of these things they’re trying to do.”

Lead generation is a huge problem. Older agents are retiring and more business is transacted online, which means the approach to lead generation must evolve with the industry. At the present time, lead generation involves a complicated web of data, external partners, and internal systems, all of which need to be orchestrated into compelling offers that are relevant to individual consumers “in the moment.”

Insurance companies also want to improve their ability to act on “triggers” that suggest a prospect’s interest in a particular product. For example, multiple mortgage loan pulls on a credit report indicate that the prospective home buyer will probably need homeowners insurance. To get information they lack, insurance companies use third-party sources such as credit information provider Transunion, data company Lexis/Nexis, and partners who specialize in social media analytics.

Addressing lead generation

Aite Group recently published a report based on interviews with 80 lead generation vendors and more than 30 insurance company and agency lead-generation and marketing executives. Chow said orchestrating information is the biggest problem the insurance industry faces today, which is why some carriers turn to vendors such as data integration platform provider LeadCloud.

Meanwhile, data acquisition costs are rising because insurance companies don’t know how to target prospects younger than the Baby Boomer generation.

“Getting a 30-year-old to understand the value of life insurance is difficult,” said Chow. “Learning how to target them and speak to them adds to the acquisition costs.”

It doesn’t help that the information insurance companies provide to consumers can be more confusing than clarifying. Because consumers have trouble differentiating products, insurance companies such as Geico, Progressive, MetLife, and Allstate spend lots of money on radio, TV, and pay-per-click advertising promoting their brands.

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To reduce lead-generation costs, insurance companies need to improve their ability to use data and analytics.

“We’re seeing acquisition costs go down [among auto insurance carriers] but [for the rest] it’s going to be learning who your target market is, having the supporting data, and being able to hone in on that particular consumer. It’s not going to be easy,” said Chow.

Making sense of data still difficult

The insurance industry also has challenges with data access. Data quality is a problem because different systems say different things about the same person or issue.

Further complicating the matter is the number of systems insurance companies have. They have dedicated systems for claims, underwriting, new business, customer service, and policies. Worse, there are often duplicates of systems because one may cover claims from 1990 to 2000, while another covers claims from 2001 and later, for example.

“On average, some of the top tier carriers have over 26 or 27 legacy policy administration systems they’re running on at one time,” said Chow. “If you have a life insurance policy and an auto policy or a dental policy with [a particular carrier], they can’t get data from one policy to the next policy. They can’t merge that together so they can learn more about you.”

Even if insurance companies could unearth “the golden leads,” loyalty may be an issue for some types of insurance. Chow said most people won’t move their life insurance policy from one carrier to another. Yet, most consumers shop for auto insurance based on price. When it comes to health insurance, customer loyalty depends on the carrier’s willingness to make good on its promises and streamlining the claims process.

Perhaps the insurance industry lags behind in its intelligent use of data because its technology stack and business processes are complex and fragmented. Still, if insurance companies want to remain competitive, they must be able to use data more adeptly to quickly identify quality leads and compete more effectively.

How Customer Intelligence Impacts Customer Loyalty, Wallet Share

Many of today’s companies talk about getting a 360-degree view of their customers and how that will enable them to increase share of wallet and improve customer loyalty. As a consumer and an industry observer, I would argue that these “360-degree views” are aspirational at best. Striving for a holistic view of customers is a noble goal and a necessary one; however, achieving customer intelligence nirvana is easier said than done.

“The vast majority of the people we talk to aspire to get a 360-degree view of the customer, but the reality is they may not have closed the circle,” said Julio Hernandez, partner, global customer Centre of Excellence Lead and US Customer Advisory Practice Lead at KPMG . “A 360-degree view of the customer is really knowing who the customer is, what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. It’s also bringing in the right information sources, and the information sources are continuously evolving.”

Companies should also understand how valuable their customers are and where they are on their journeys. However, truly understanding customers and marketing to them appropriately is still difficult despite all the technology and data that’s available now.

Part of the problem is what Hernandez calls “The New Year’s Day” problem, which is saying one thing and doing another.

“It goes back to the 360-degree view and having multiple sources of data, combining them, and combining [different] types of analysis to get a better picture of what the customer wants and is doing,” said Hernandez. “You have to start with what you’re trying to achieve with customer insights. That drives how you harness the analytics and how you look at the data. If you expect to just look at all your data and [get] all the insights in the world, you’re going to come up short.”

Increasing Share of Wallet

Businesses purchase a lot of third-party data to better understand their customers’ economic means, what they’re buying and where they’re buying it to understand their share of wallet. If they have a loyalty program, they have insight into what their share of wallet looks like.

“You have to make some inferences about what’s your share in the marketplace is in different categories,” said Hernandez. “You can also triangulate and come up to a number about what I’m actually selling to that person versus the inferred wallet [because] you won’t know for sure exactly what their wallet is.”

Businesses should also consider the attributes of their best customers and then identify customers who share the same attributes but spend less. That way, the company can intervene with some sort of marketing campaign that encourages the latter group to spend more.

Improving Customer Loyalty

Businesses with loyalty programs get varied results depending on the benefits their programs provide and the degree to which companies leverage that information.

“Loyalty cards are interesting because they’re trying to [get] you to clearly state who you are when you’re using the card and then they can track your basket and your purchases,” said Hernandez. “But you have to step back and ask how do you as an organization define loyalty? Is it someone who stays with you on an ongoing basis? If so, that’s great, but if you’re a utility and I continue to business with [you], that doesn’t necessarily means that I’m loyal. It means I’m lazy or I don’t have substitutes.”

Money isn’t everything. If two customers spend the same amount of money, but one is a brand advocate on social media, the latter is considered more valuable now.

“When you think about loyalty, it’s also about what are they’re doing with their loyalty,” said Hernandez. “Are they engaging with your services? Are they proponents of it? Those are things that help you determine what kind of loyalty you have.”

Crafting the Ultimate Email Interview Response

email-824310_640More journalists have moved to email interviews, including this one.  You’d be surprised how different the responses are, and IMHO, it’s the little things that can make or break coverage.

This post assumes your client has been selected for an email interview.

#1:  Include Your Client’s Information

Wait, what?  I already gave you that stuff in my original pitch over email…

Maybe, but is it correct?  A lot of times in a pitch, PR pros will say something like, “Anil is with…” or “Anil is lead at XYZ Company.”  That may be true.  On the other hand, his LinkedIn title, or the title on the company site (assuming he’s listed) may say something more specific like VP of Technology and Co-founder.  Perhaps he was just promoted to CEO and it hasn’t been announced yet, but will be by the time the story hits.  Stuff happens.

Include your client’s information so you can be sure that it’s correct and free of typos.  Sometimes email pitches include typos that include misspelled client names or misspelled client company names (which happened this week).  Also, in the unlikely event that your client’s name or company name is misspelled when the story hits, you can show the mistake wasn’t yours (which makes a difference).

And another thing:  Sometimes an email thread related to a pitch for ONE story is unbelievably long.  Some of them exceed 20 messages to and from Ms. PR Maven.  She may have included the client’s title in Message #1, in Message #19, somewhere in between or not at all.  It’s cheap insurance (and a best practice) to include your client’s information at the top, in boldface type, with a link to your client’s website.

#2:  Advise Your Client to Provide Thoughtful, Well-Reasoned Responses

Most interviewees do this, which is great.  A few don’t.  Those that don’t run the risk of not being included in a story because what they said just doesn’t fit in.  FWIW, at the top of my email interview questions I say, “Thank you for your thoughtful, well-reasoned responses.”  The implication is provide short answers at your own risk.

From where I sit, stories have a life of their own.  I pitch ideas, get approval, fish for sources on HARO, interview people, and then weave that into something coherent.  It’s kind of like putting together a puzzle: I know the subject matter of the puzzle, but I don’t know what the pieces are (depends on the interviews) and how they’ll fit together.  Here’s why brief commentary is dangerous, if you’re working with me.

As background, brief commentary takes a couple of forms – the pithy response and the general short answer, both of which can be difficult or impossible to include in a story.

Knowing journalists use quotables, sometimes (albeit rarely), an interviewee will try to provide short, pithy, supposedly quotable quips that are “cute” and most likely unusable.  The quips are based on false assumptions about how the story will flow.

Comparatively, thoughtful, well-reasoned answers provide perspectives and the reasons for those perspectives.  This is great because intelligent minds, and even experts, disagree.  It’s always helpful to understand why.  Also, the richer commentary also provides more to work with, and therefore more opportunities (and a better likelihood) for coverage.

The general short answer typically shows a lack of effort.  The interviewee provides one or two sentences, which tend to be obvious points that others have also made and so there’s nothing original.  Because there’s nothing original (and someone probably said the same thing more eloquently), guess what?

Obviously, when I don’t use commentary I get questions about it.  I answer those questions honestly, and essentially say one of the two things above.

#3:  Make Sure The Answers Align With the Questions

This sounds obvious, but people can go off on tangents.  Sometimes, I’ve hit a hot-button issue to the point of opening Pandora’s Box.  The interviewee spews out all kinds of information, perhaps little or none of which address the question directly.

Sometimes people want to promote their products.  This is fine to some degree, assuming that’s the point of the piece, but I don’t tend to write about products or how great they are unless it’s sponsored content.  My Help a Reporter Out (HARO) posts always state “non-promotional” content, but not everyone pays attention.  If I ask for commentary on issues and trends, and receive answers about all the bells and whistles of a product, I find myself explaining why the commentary wasn’t used.

Related to this are transparently obvious self-serving answers.  I don’t blame vendors for this.  They’re doing it because PR is a promotional vehicle, but it ain’t advertorial.  Sometimes, transparently promotional stuff is kind of amusing, but perhaps unusable.  I’m really not going to quote someone saying, “what they really need is the industry’s most robust, scalable, global, award-winning, industry-leading API platform.”

Bottom Line

There are a few simple things that can make the difference between getting coverage and not getting coverage.  I’ve included three things that could help probably 40% of the people I work with over time.

If you’re already doing these things, thank you very much.  Hopefully this commentary will be valuable for you nevertheless, because even if you know the ropes, you’ll probably need to teach someone else, soon.

Does HARO Really Work?

HARO logo

HARO: Just a Medium

PR pros sometimes tell me that Help a Reporter Out (HARO) doesn’t work. I would argue the opposite, based on extensive experience with it and the ongoing relationships I’ve established through the medium.

There was some sort of batch-related technical glitch that kept me from receiving about 10 pitches yesterday, but that’s nothing – and certainly not an indication of its lack of usefulness – especially when you consider I’ve been using the medium every week for the last year.  You may or pay not know that ProfNet and HARO are merging, and every merger has technical glitches.

That’s not the reason people have been complaining over the last year.  The reason they’re complaining is twofold:  a lot of journalists are unresponsive and I imagine they’re not getting the results they want.  Ergo, HARO doesn’t work.  OTOH, who’s fault is that?

Don’t Confuse the Medium and the Message

HARO is a medium, nothing more.  It’s just a website or “marketplace” that connects journalists with potential sources and their PR reps.  Blaming HARO for the way journalists behave or the outcome of pitches is like blaming your toothbrush for failing to do a root canal.

On the other hand, I know how frustrating pitching can be.  Been there, done that.  I still do it.  I  understand how frustrating it is when people don’t respond to a pitch, or they’re just plain rude.  It happens to all of us.  However, that kind of stuff happens to some people more often than others – with or without HARO and here are a few reasons why:

You’re Playing the Numbers

If you send a pitch out to a sea of people, it’s likely someone will bite no matter how good or bad the pitch is.  I see people using this tactic as evidenced by pitches that do not directly relate to  a query I’ve posted.  A good example are the fashion pitches I’m getting out of Europe.  Guess what?  Fashion isn’t my beat, not even close.

I usually tell people it’s not my beat, hoping they’ll get the message and stop pitching me.  Although, the more fashion pitches I get, the more likely I am to ignore them.  They’re irrelevant and poorly targeted.  Of all the pitches I get, these are the ones I’ll most likely ignore.

You’re Advancing an Agenda

Well, of course you’re advancing an agenda.  That’s why companies hire agencies and independent PR pros.  OTOH, people often try to advance an agenda that isn’t in line with the specific direction of a story.  And in most cases, it makes no sense to try to shoe-horn a bolted-on topic into the story.

The most common form this takes in my experiences is product-related pitches that are responding to an issues-oriented query.  I get that a lot.  “XYZ company would be happy to tell you why business leaders today need [our client’s product capabilities, including these specific features and functions].”  OK, but I’m actually interested in the personality traits of a data scientist, for example.

Alternatively, I can get things that may seem logical to the person who is pitching, but are not relevant in fact.  An example of this would be, “I see you’re writing a piece on data science.  My client hosts grade school biology science camps.”  The word, “science” is common to both topics.  A pitch about grade school data science camps would have a better chance of succeeding.

I respond to these types of pitches and tell people why their pitches are irrelevant, but I’m apparently among the minority of journalists who do.

Having spent years managing clients and account groups at agencies, I know exactly why people are being trained to do these kinds of pitches – it’s just one tool in the toolbox. The theory is, if you pitch something related to a story, you may succeed.  “May” is the operative word.

You Want the Story Angle Changed

This is a very unlikely outcome, especially when there’s an editorial hierarchy and the writer or editor has already sold an idea to her editor.  A couple of people try this tactic on me every week and it doesn’t work.

The inherent flaws in this tactic are 1) it sends the message that the original story angle is flawed, weak, or or without merit; and 2) the client agenda is usually as transparent as freshly-polished glass.

People pitching themselves tend to do this more.  Don’t write about THAT topic!  Write about me!

It’s Time the Journalist Covered Your Client

After pitching a journalist on the same client time and again, one gets to the point where one feels it’s about time this journalist got with the program.  After all, the journalists’s beat is X and your client fits squarely within the realm of X.  In one of the areas I cover, an industry analyst recently told me there were 2,000 companies he could possibly include in a report but there was only room for 20 or so.  Yikes.

I like to hear from fresh voices assuming the pitch is on-target.

One tenacious young lady who pitches me often had a hit rate of 0 (with me at least).  She pitched me almost every week about the same client and same basic angle.  It wasn’t a fit…until it was.

There were a sea of other pitches that also would have worked but I chose hers over some others because she had the fortitude to stick with it until she succeeded.  I admire her tenacity.  On the other hand, had her pitch been off-base – yet again – I would have passed on it.

Whether it’s “time” to cover a company, topic, product, or whatever is a matter of opinion.  Your opinion won’t align with all the people all the time, but don’t give up.  The most important thing is to learn from your experiences.

Got HARO Horror Stories?

Share ’em.  I’d love to hear about ’em.

Why You Should Fire Your PR Agency. Now.

puzzle-432569_640PR agencies are inefficient in ways that are not apparent to their clients.  The inefficiencies can cost you tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the only “insight” you’re going to have is a rising level of frustration.

One problem is the way PR agencies are organized.  The other has to do with philosophy and people.

PR Agencies May Be Structured Inefficiently

PR agencies have historically been hierarchical organizations.  That’s not true of all PR agencies since the general business trend has been to replace hierarchical organizational structures with flat or matrix structures, but a lot of PR agencies are still structured the same old way.

Typically, your “PR team” includes several people, if your budget allows it.  The most junior people handle the rote stuff and more senior people oversee what they do.  While that operational process is not always inefficient, consider in-house agency meetings.

In-house agency meetings sometimes involve the entire team dedicated to a client.  A one-hour meeting is the sum of all their billable rates, which, if you add them up may astound you.  For your sake, I hope such meetings are fruitful.

Hierarchical structures also fuel egos in a way that is not in the best interest of clients.  Quite often, as people move up the agency ladder, they rid themselves of tasks that tend to be assigned to more junior people.  Depending on what’s happening on the client side, that hands-off mentality may work against the client, especially when a sensitive issue arises such as a product recall, a security breach, or a public attack by a competitor.

They’re Clueless

The typical agency-client relationship looks something like this:  The client is the subject matter expert and the PR agency is the media expert.  It’s a very simple formula that sounds good and is flawed.

For one thing, the client contact may or may not be a subject matter expert.  If the client contact is a subject matter expert – great, especially if the PR reps are actively listening, taking notes, and asking smart questions.  If the client contact is not a subject matter expert, few PR pros will be able to tell because their domain knowledge is either weak or non-existent.  That’s one way misinformation gets propagated.  Everywhere.

Worse, a lot of PR pros don’t understand their clients in any real depth, which I think (and I have always thought) is a mistake.  There are a few reasons for that:

It’s not my job.  Most PR pros don’t take the time to understand their clients and their clients’ products or services because they don’t consider it part of their jobs, as unbelievable as that may seem.  After all, the client is the subject-matter expert.  The problem with that philosophy is that journalists often ask second-level questions that few PR pros are prepared to answer such as, “Why do I need a smartwatch if I have a FitBit?”  If they can’t answer basic questions, you’re likely losing coverage at your expense.

It’s not billable.  Coming up to speed takes time, and the question is, who’s going to pay for it?  Clients generally don’t want to pay to educate agency reps.  Agencies don’t want to invest in fishing expeditions ad infinitum, especially if the time spent isn’t billable.  There’s a balance.  Finding it can be tricky.

They’re green.  Most PR pros on the front line are very young.  They lack the life experience and work experience necessary to infer important insights and ask insightful questions.  It’s not their fault.  They’ll learn eventually,  most likely at your expense or another’s client’s expense.

They lack passion.  Some PR pros aren’t passionate about what their clients do, and when they’re not passionate, they’re not interested, and they’re not doing the best job they could possibly be doing.  In my role as a mentor, some PR people have told me they have a feeling they should be doing something else because they’re uncomfortable with their clients’ subject matter.  These people tend to disappear on their own terms – or on the agency’s terms – in relatively short order.

Good PR People Are Golden

Generally speaking, agencies and people who work for agencies vary greatly in their abilities.  Sadly, clients end up paying for a lot of inefficiencies that are not obvious (even to the people who work in agencies).

My advice is observe the people who are on your PR team and make your own assessment.  You should be able to tell from words and deeds who “gets it” and who doesn’t.  If you have a team full of people that doesn’t get it, it may be time to review your options.

On the other hand, it may be time to look in the mirror.  Quite often the reason agencies fail or people at agencies fail to grasp critical information is because their client contact doesn’t want to share it, for fear of spilling trade secrets, or for political reasons (information is power).  If you’ve had the same issues over and over again from agency after agency, perhaps the agency isn’t the problem afteer all.