The Challenge

We are living in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world. Changes in data availability and technology are happening at an exponential rate. New communications and media ecosystems are forming more rapidly than before. The data and technology train has left the station and the Corporate Communications world is running to catch up.

Sound familiar?

It reminds me of the digital wave — or more like digital tsunami — that was triggered over 10 years ago after the 2008 Obama campaign accelerated the adoption of digital communications as the primary communications channel. There was a boom in hiring for “digital” communications roles, digital agencies sprung up everywhere, and if you asked any Chief Communications Officer (CCO) at that time about the one area they needed to invest in, “digital” was likely the first word out of their mouth.

Have You Heard of CommTech?

If not, you will soon. Named by the Page Society (the leading association for CCOs and communication professionals), CommTech is the younger sibling of MarTech and represents the next wave of investment and adoption within Communications orgs.

  • ‍MarTech, otherwise known as Marketing Technology, is the term for the software and tech tools marketers leverage to plan, execute, and measure marketing campaigns.‍
  • CommTech, otherwise known as Communications Technology, is the term for the software and tech tools communicators leverage to plan, execute and measure communications campaigns.

I've spent over 10 years at Walmart in Corporate Affairs and Communications building a data, technology, and targeted advertising infrastructure from scratch. This experience has given me valuable perspectives, and I want to share what I’ve done and what I’ve learned with the goal of helping other Communication leaders sift through the BS and begin integrating data and technology into their organizations.

What If I Told You…

You can be a data scientist, without actually being a data scientist. I’m a liberal arts major, my math skills are challenged daily by my children and don’t ask me to explain SQL or Python because I can’t.

Even still, I’ve managed to foster a data-driven culture. And you can too.

To do so, trust in what data tells you and know enough to translate and connect the ambiguous and complex world of “artificial intelligence,” “machine learning,” and all of the other buzzwords related to communications and marketing strategies.

You don’t need to have a big budget, or hire a big consultancy or PR firm to build or run a CommTech model. My team of 5 is operating at scale, and providing data and insights across Communications, Marketing, and many other areas of the business. The right data and technology infrastructure enables a few intellectually curious, tech and digital savvy liberal arts majors to serve over 20 departments, answering any and all questions that range from:

  • Brand reputation measurement, tracking and analysis
  • Media monitoring, measurement and reporting
  • Content testing and performance measurement
  • Competitor intelligence and enterprise risk assessments
  • Consumer insights and trends
  • Stakeholder mapping
  • Public policy and regulatory tracking
  • And the list goes on ...

Building a CommTech Infrastructure Requires 4 Things: Culture, Capability, Technology & Structure

Establish a Culture

By being a people-led, technology-first organization, you can foster a culture of curiosity, creativity, decisiveness, and speed. You need to continuously strive to gain a rich and nuanced understanding of your customers’ and stakeholders’ needs, and the world that they live in.

As such, you can’t solely rely on traditional data gathering approaches and methodologies which are often too standardized, biased, slow and expensive. The amount of available data is increasing exponentially, and the amount of time it takes to collect information and make decisions is increasing, though at a slower pace. This means the intelligence gap is growing. Therefore, you should be agnostic to the data and technology, be comfortable with ambiguity, be accepting of the directional nature of data as opposed to its absolute certainty, and lastly, be transparent and democratize the information.


Build The Capability

There is an unlimited repository of information through unstructured open-source data that can be harnessed to provide insights and intelligence that will give you a huge competitive advantage. Think about the power of the intelligence and the signals you can extract from data and content generated by news, blogs, social media, economic reports, patents, 10-k filings, academic papers, VC investments, etc., and how that can inform communications, marketing and business strategies.

Here are the capabilities you should look for in your analytics technology stack:

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  • Custom daily, weekly, and monthly insight briefs to inform what’s happening with your brand as well as competitors and the broader political, economic, and cultural environment.
  • Automated Alerts & Signals to track, identify, and flag risks and opportunities.
  • Instant notifications when executives or topics are mentioned and key stakeholders engage.
  • Real-time dashboards to understand how announcements, key messages, and topics are being discussed and shared.
  • Analytics to optimize content strategy and measure the impact of efforts across owned, earned, and paid channels.
  • Custom analytics powered by Machine Learning (ML) to characterize volume, trends, tonality, and intensity.
  • AI to detect and monitor campaigns, bots, and mis-information.

Assemble the Technology Stack One Piece at a Time.

Don’t bite. There is no one-size-fits-all technology platform solution. You should look for the different types of functionality you need to achieve your communications goals. Here are a few technology-driven applications replicated:

  • Integrated a media monitoring platform covering blogs, news sites, forums, videos, reviews, images, and social networks such as Twitter and Instagram that also includes the ability to dissect and visualize insights via fully customizable, real-time dashboards
  • Created an always-on monitoring capability and built a push notification functionality to alert communications team members when an issue is emerging/trending
  • Enabled custom uploads to analyze unique datasets including product reviews, blog threads, and corporate executive Q&A sessions
  • Identified key stakeholders and events through trends not visible to the naked eye in news articles and blog content
  • Analyzed patent databases to understand the competitor landscape from an innovation and product creation perspective
  • Tracked retail VC investments to identify emerging start-ups and niche market opportunities
  • Highlighted daily top events by analyzing unstructured news data to find evidence of real world events significant to the core business and general consumer mindset
  • Improved efficiency by reducing cost/time taken for human analysts to evaluate large volumes of news articles on a daily basis
  • Extracted quotes from key opinion leaders on significant events to better understand the first-person narrative irrespective of possible media slanted biases

Here’s a sample of our CommTech stack. As you can see, we utilize a variety of different tools, such as the natural language processing technology from Quid, a media monitoring and analytics platform from Brandwatch, chat bots from Primer, the content intelligence platform Knotch, and the digital advertising attribution platform Vantage from Bully Pulpit.

Believe in what people do, not what they say. Primary research methodologies that capture self-reported data are often too standardized and biased to measuring the true effectiveness and performance of your communications campaigns. Legacy engagement KPIs like impressions, story count, and views don’t answer the question of whether you changed someone’s behavior or opinion. You need to understand who has been exposed to the content, and who hasn’t. Do you know if that exposure resulted in brand lift or a purchase? You need to be able to have an answer to these questions.

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Create a Structure That is People-Led but Tech Empowered.

Integrate analysts within Communications functions who can train and democratize data and technology. While organizations are managed vertically, the work and processes need to flow horizontally.

Clearly define roles and responsibilities between the communication team, insights & analytics team, agencies, and the technology stack.

Here’s an example of how we’ve structured our team around a CommTech model:

It's critical to put the technology directly in people’s hands. Allow the communications team to see, touch and smell the data. It’s as simple as creating customized social/online monitoring dashboards that allow communicators to track their own issues and initiatives, know when something is trending and pull their own measurement reports. Training and upskilling is required but the time doing so on the front-end will pay dividends on the back-end when you don’t need to outsource everything.

So What Does This All Mean for Communications?

Integrating data and technology within a Communications organization is no longer out of reach—it’s a requirement for any organization that wants to stay relevant and competitive in a highly-saturated digital environment.

Tasks that are traditionally more manual like creating daily media clip reports, conducting market research on a particular topic, identifying the most culturally relevant messaging, building customized media lists, identifying emerging influencers, and compiling a measurement report can now all be mostly automated. Think about the amount of time it takes to compile information versus the amount of time spent actually thinking strategically and making decisions on that information.

I hope the background I’ve provided based on my experience at Walmart can help answer some of your questions, and provide a blueprint for CCOs and other communication leaders who are looking to build this muscle during such a pivotal time. At the end of the day, we all want to be there for our customers, and data & technology affords us the ability to serve them well. That’s what it’s all about.

Feel free to reach out to share best practices, ask additional questions, or challenge anything.