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PR Industry Inches Towards A/B Testing
Holmes Report
Holmes Report
News and insights from the global PR industry

PR Industry Inches Towards A/B Testing

Holmes Report

Aarti Shah While A/B testing has been commonly applied in marketing for more than a decade, the PR industry has yet to take full advantage of how this data-driven methodology could optimize its content efforts. A/B testing is a process by which visitors are randomly routed to slightly different versions of, for instance a web page, to measure the behaviors “version A” elicits compared to “version B.” In turn, the version that leads to more engagement -- clicks, shares, purchases, etc -- is deemed superior and the others are dropped. In the PR industry, A/B testing has the most direct implications for content. Ephraim Cohen, EVP of technology and innovation at MWW, says A/B optimized headlines yield higher click-throughs for content that’s syndicated via outlets like Outbrain and Taboola. This uptick in performance extends to A/B optimized blog posts, social content, and in some cases, white papers and press releases. “I refer to it as A/B testing and optimization -- because if you’re doing it in real-time, it’s optimization,” Cohen says. “Maybe a piece of content is performing pretty well, but you can make it better.” On average, when four to five headlines are tested, there will be as much as a 10x performance spread between the worst and best ones, Cohen estimates. For blog posts, typically two to three headlines are tested with the best one doing 2x-4x better than its lower performing counterparts. Those numbers are mirrored in social media testing, where two to three pieces of content yield a 2x-4x performance difference. “You have to understand the technology that drives the content,” Cohen says. “We encourage people to understand how their [content management system] works. The technology is there to do this, it’s a matter of cost.” These costs can range from a few hundred dollars to a several thousand. Some clients have existing private communities in which A/B tests can be run. In those instances there are no additional costs beyond the initial investment of creating the private community, he adds. Stephen Downs, MD of RFI Studios West, the digital arm of Ruder Finn says the firm uses A/B testing across all of its digital assets, for messaging, visual design, imagery and website layout. And while channels like Facebook provide A/B testing on its sponsored content -- this way of thinking can be applied to organic social content as well. “One can perform a simple A/B test within their brands’ Facebook page by simply observing how a particular post performs  with likes, comments, views, etc., in comparison to others,” he says. “Adjustments to content, either slight or drastic, may yield an interesting effect.” Downs says, while PR clients might not be familiar with the concept of A/B testing, data-driven decision making is so widely accepted that it “makes for an easy sell.” Likewise, MWW’s Cohen says his firm already conducts A/B testing for several clients and plans to make a formal announcement of this offering in coming months, in addition to a paid media practice. At the UK-based creative agency Albion, the PR team - Albion Drive -- works alongside the performance marketing, social message testing and digital user acquisition arm, Albion Cell. As part of its testing methodology, Albion Cell will draft “literally hundreds” of pieces of short-form copy to support a client’s brief. “Then, over the next six to eight weeks, using a media budget of around £10 to 15k, the team will pump out all of these bits copy out across various social platforms and international geographies in real-time, continually cutting and iterating the messages based on their performance until the client is left with the top five that drew the most potential customers to their site,” says Bryce Keane Albion’s founder and director. Once the list of five is final, the PR team builds campaigns based on the messages that performed the best in each geography “eliminating the age old 'finger in the air' approach,” he adds, likening the process to Eric Ries’ Lean Startup philosophy that advocates for efficient, iterative product development. “It’s a way of thinking that  we need to layer PR on,” he says. For instance, Albion worked with startup TransferWise that offers international currency transfer without banking fees. TransferWise’s founders require all initiatives be backed up with results, so Albion employed its methodology to gauge how well various audiences would respond to TransferWise’s selling proposition. It was initially expected the core market for the offering would be consumers, such as US expats living in Europe. But via message testing on Facebook, the agency learned that startups overwhelmingly took to the service to minimize their operating costs. “And they tend to be very loyal if they feel like someone ‘gets’ then,” Keane says. Then, PR was tasked with developing an idea that spoke to this community. Ultimately, “the $100 million campaign” was hatched to give away that amount in free transfers to startups. Five hundred people signed up for the service in the first week of the campaign. Ultimately, Albion’s division of labor doesn’t outright task PR with testing, but certainly improves chances for PR success. And MWW’s Cohen points out that PR dipping its toes into A/B testing isn’t necessarily at the peril of sister marketing disciplines. In fact, veering too far into marketing’s domain can hurt PR’s outcome, he says. Being swept into the frenzy of clicks risks kneading headlines that  promise far more excitement than the copy ultimately delivers. “You shouldn’t be testing headlines for click-bait,” Cohen says. “The trick is, you can’t get carried away with marketing metrics. PR is about staying on message, reaching the right audiences. When you stray away from that you’re trading strategic ROI for big numbers.” He argues too often PR firms mistake digital-savvy with simply applying marketing metrics. “Some people think that takes you up a notch but it actually takes us down -- we’re more strategic than just counting clicks,” he adds. The other risk with A/B testing is developing “content by committee” that essentially waters down creativity and edge for mass lukewarm appeal. “If you are not creative with your testing, you will always stay in a relative comfort zone – in that regard, why do testing at all?” says RFI’s Downs. Also published at the Holmes Report
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