Blogs  / March 19, 2014

How integrating data fuels Optimizely’s potent PR

by Rebekah Iliff

This week, The Holmes Report cited us in a post entitled: Are PR engineers the next big ‘thing’?

Growth hackers and data scientists step aside puuhleeease.

As fortuitous but somewhat strategic luck would have it, the journalist also cited Helen Phung of Optimizely in the article – who just so happens (let’s be clear though, nothing “just so happens” – #PRblackbox) to be our interview of the week.

Truth #1 – When Sharam introduced us a few months ago I was immediately intrigued by her “PR Prowess” and fundamental understanding of the nuances and nuisances of PR’s evolutionary future.

Truth #2 – We like totally stole her Twitter bio (PR Engineer) title and are now championing it like it ain’t nobody’s bidness.

Read on to find out why she’s the A/Bees knees and why Optimizely is making major PR waves.

Helen Phung Headshot, Optimizely Head of PRRebekah Iliff: As the Head of Public Relations at Optimizely, what are some of the challenges you’ve experienced with PR?

Helen Phung: One of the biggest challenges at Optimizely is finding the right balance between creating value through brand awareness versus creating value through lead generation. The two are not mutually exclusive but the former is more difficult to measure and track.

Brand awareness doesn’t happen overnight.

RI: Amen. I think this is something that many companies (especially startups) don’t understand. It takes an extraordinary amount of strategic thinking, then…time.

HP: So true! Companies need to realize that it requires a steady drumbeat of education and repetition and does not always have an immediate impact on the bottom line.

It can be challenging to find a voice that resonates with very different audiences. Does a focus on one audience segment imply a neglect of another? What is of far greater value is to weave that “golden thread” that resonates with everyone. The “golden thread” story speaks to all your audiences in a way that is powerful, memorable and creates a connection.

RI: I noticed you used the term “PR Engineer” in your Twitter bio. So effectively, we stole it. What does that title mean to you and how does it impact the way you approach PR?

HP: Most engineers I’ve come across in my days in startup world obsess over identifying problems and solving them. I am too, in the sense that it’s important for me to feel like I’m moving the needle on an issue or problem that is meaningful to me. In the agile software development model, there are always opportunities to iterate and improve. PR is similar. I can refine messaging and story lines to better suit my audience, rather than staying static in what and how we communicate.

RI: Rocking the intersection of the strategic insight and creative thought is a powerful place to be. Can you cite a recent example of how you leveraged data to create a better story?

HP: This tool called BuiltWith provides trend data of web technologies deployed by companies today. We used the tool to build a graph that shows the increase in the adoption of A/B testing over the last few years. It turned out to be one of these simple “up and to the right” graphs that was easy to understand and rooted in data. The graph suggests that it’s only a matter of time before A/B testing is ubiquitous. If you haven’t hopped on board yet, then you’re going to lose to your competitors. Simple.

RI: What is the biggest challenge you see for PR pros right now as they straddle the line between the old school PR practices and new school data driven demands?

HP: Demand for measurement has reached an all-time high, but most PR pros continue to fall short. Measurement is foreign to many PR professionals. Some PR pros are beginning to track activities and calculate conversion rates to assess performance, identify new opportunities, optimize efforts, and report results. Metrics include referral traffic, unique visits, social volume, sentiment, share of voice and organic search volume. None of these are the “silver bullet” for PR measurement but are a good place to start.

RI: I couldn’t agree more. Any caveats?

HP: There is a danger in obsessing over these metrics in a week over week basis. PR is the long game, as it’s always been. If the aim for PR efforts is to maintain a positive reputation, no single metric will boost that. Focus on telling the right story to the right people and watch all your numbers go “up.” Well, that’s the hope at least.

RI: Helen, I think I’m in love with you…but beyond that:

How have you seen the disintermediation of media and the explosion of technology shift the role of PR?

HP: Today, PR monitors conversation on social networks, blogs, forums, at events and on traditional media. It includes all types of communications and the vehicles that carry the information.

As the technology has increased and diversified, the job of PR remains the same: stay tuned to the what’s happening everywhere, all the time, to gauge what’s appropriate in the eyes of your audience.

RI: In an effort to replicate your brain: what resources or thought leaders do you look to for improving your own data literacy and increasing your digital IQ?

HP: The blogs at Uber (#uberdata) and OkCupid (OkTrends) come to mind. Both of them are using anonymized data of their own users to uncover great stories. Creating company-wide fluency in data for storytelling demonstrates a culture of tinkering, fun and curiosity that lie outside of their core competencies.

RI: Last but not least: what’s the last book you read that made your head spin? (In a good way)

HP: There’s a fantastic book called The Power of Visual Storytelling: How to Use Visuals, Videos, and Social Media to Market Your Brand by Ekaterina Walter that I highly recommend for modern marketers. Mostly I stick to the New Yorker in my spare time.

RI: Of course you do, and that’s why I dig ya! 

By the way – did I ever tell you my dirtiest secret (that I can talk about publicly)?

HP: Shoot.

RI: Sometimes when I’m brain dead and don’t feel like working on a flight I’ll snag an US Weekly or InTouch at the airport, but I’ll hide it in a New Yorker like I’m catching up on all the wonderful sights, sounds, and new sidewalk cafes in New York. But I’m really reading about whether or not Tori is going to take Dean back.

HP: That’s a pretty good story…

RI: Unfortunately it’s true. Pretty sure the ROI on that is ZERO.