As the understanding of influence in the digital world evolves, so too does the rise of tools focused on this area. Many are built by third-party software vendors - but several PR agencies have also opted to develop their own bespoke products.

One such firm is Waggener Edstrom which, in recent months, has launched no fewer than three software tools which aim to measure the value and impact of social influence. Ripple Effect is the most recent - a measurement service that helps evaluate the sharing of online content. This follows Social Graph, which attempts to understand who is influencing the influencers. At SXSW earlier this year, meanwhile, the agency released the Hot Spots app - which identified the event’s hottest parties.

In a phone interview with The Holmes Report, Waggener Edstrom insight & analytics, product development SVP Karla Wachter explains why her agency is investing in this area, how the talent profile within many agencies is shifting rapidly, and why agencies that ignore the power of social data risk being left behind.

As a PR firm, why exactly are you launching these tools?

We are in the business of influence. We have a very specific strategy and offering we bring to clients. About two years ago, we recognised that we have an opportunity to really take advantage of the power of software and marry that with services. We started down the path of developing products. The first one was Twendz - we pushed that out to the market, and it hit at a time when the social monitoring tools were just starting to take off. We learned a tremendous amount about the opportunities we have to help our client’s problems by marrying software and services. Then we came out with Twendz pro. We actually have 12 products in our product suite now. These are that culmination of software and the service. You can have all the software - but what makes it come to life is that human analytics above it.

These types of tools have the potential to change the way clients plan and execute their PR programs. Are they ready for this for level of challenge?

I think they are, but I’m generalising. THis is something they really want to focus on. They have got finite resources and at this point in time its never been more essential to make sure they are focusing these resources on the right and relevant places that are going to help them show how their investment is going to take them to a true outcome. What we’ve struggled with is - we shoot our message out and we hope it sticks somewhere. What really surprised one client was the power of a handful of influencers. So it became a discussion about what is the strategy to approach those influencers. That is the power of data - it is an engine that fuels that strategy, and content and development. But there are going to be people out there that are not quite ready for this.

How does the talent profile need to change to keep pace with these developments?

If you are an agency and you are not leveraging the wealth of volume that is available to you, you are going to get significantly left behind. Once upon a time, we said: We think this has impact and we assume this has impact. It’s a cost of entry that we are able to prove the value of communications we are delivering to them. In order to do that, you need to have data and measurement that flows throughout the course of your campaign that enables you to modify your campaign. Finally, if you can’t walk into the C-suite and be able to show them the value of that communication and with data to support it, you are going to be left behind.

As we look at the agency, we all are evolving. I have a team of more than 70 focused on design, data and analytics. We have an experience team looking at website development. We have content management. In the last couple of years, having that within the agency environment - yes, that’s a new skill-set. Today, if you look across all of the major agencies, and the positions they are hiring for, and laid that next to the hiring profiles from five years ago, I think you would see vast differences. People have to understand the power of relevance and measurement - that’s never going to change. But the skill-sets have changed.

Why develop these tools rather than buy them?

At some levels we will partner in both development of new products but also in bringing in new products that are commodity-based. Social monitoring for example. We’re not going to build one because there are so many social monitoring tools that are on the market. Our focus is on the gap in the marketplace where we are still not seeing the tools, that takes advantage of our unique understanding of influence. Where we will build is where we see a gap in the marketplace. You look at Social Graph and Ripple Effect, and those are directly addressing that gap in the marketplace.

Are you worried that these tools will become commoditised? What happens then?

These may become commoditised. But today, nobody is bringing this to bear in the consolidated fashion that we are. You are starting to see more and more of this - but you see a lot of piece parts. If you look across the broad sphere of influence and the needs we have - it’s incumbent upon the client to figure out how these piece parts come together. We’re trying to look at influence in a holistic fashion. A lot of tools only look at the social sphere, but influence is transpiring all around the social sphere - media, broadcast offline. We are thinking about all of those components across the board.

How has the understanding of relationships changed?

12 years ago, we had the handful of media. The reporters we knew - their beat was Windows or healthcare. That’s where those relationships were. Now our opportunity to understand all of the points of influence, and understand how you effectively need to build out a relationship across those points of influence, is so much bigger and deeper quite frankly. We took a megaphone approach before and we assumed impact. The fundamentals don’t change, but what has is the ability to take relationships even deeper, while the expectations of the influencers have certainly evolved.

How do you connect these tools with everything that is happening beyond digital media?

That’s where the power of our people come in. The skill-sets we have are deep data analytics expertise. We have the ability then to take that data and put it in the context of the problem the client is trying to solve - what does it mean, what should I be thinking about and how does it impact my strategy and brand? And we also have primary and secondary research experts.This is where the tried and true comes in - focus groups, surveys etc - because you have to have what happens offline. You have to have the breadth in order to be able to show how influence is flowing from start to finish.