While companies across the business world are embracing data-driven decision-making, PR agencies lag when it comes to applying “big data” learnings for their own planning and management. 

“Plenty of agencies have CFOs that will look at profitability metrics but most agencies don’t have the skillset to identify signals” that statistically point, for example, towards shrinking budgets or the growth of a particular sector, says Sam Whitmore, owner of Media Survey. Instead, agencies more frequently operate on instinct or habits shaped around reacting to clients.

As part of Media Survey, Whitmore regularly counsels agencies on their business and says, compared to the larger corporate world, it’s rare for PR firms to fully grasp the potential of data analysis as an operational driver.

“The metaphor is ‘moneyball’,” Whitmore says. 

But that’s not to say there aren't bright spots.

Most agencies likely use Google Analytics to track their website's visitor demographics and trends, but the tool only goes to the point of conversion, argues Christopher Penn, VP of marketing technology at Shift. To make that crucial bridge, Shift uses marketing analytics tools, including those from clients, Salesforce and Oracle’s Eloqua.

“For us, it comes down to scoring,” Penn explains. As one web analytics example, Shift uses software to track website activity and identify those visitors most likely to be buyers of PR services. For instance, viewing Shift’s contact, services and bio pages would point towards being a prospect.

“It’s not just a matter of having tools - it’s being able to say what the data means and change behavior accordingly,” Penn adds, noting agencies could mine data to “get ahead of the horde” around times ripe for PR services, like fiscal year-ends, trade shows and product launch seasons.

There’s also the reality that big data -- often referring to complex masses of petabytes of information -- is daunting, if not downright discouraging. But without data scientists, agencies can revert to a more a basic form of data analysis or “small data,” to guide business decisions.

For instance, Alan Soucy, CEO of Spark PR, says in addition to a CRM engine the agency uses, they track information collected from inbound new business queries. Totalling about 600 to 800 queries per year, the sample doesn’t live up to the expectations of the Big Data moniker, but provides insight. For instance, an uptick of leads from startups in gaming might indicate a warm investment market for that sector. In turn, this helps the agency make hiring or training decisions.

And the tracking goes beyond industry, other insights pulled are: the company’s stage of growth; length of desired engagements; and budgets, among other metrics. 

“Several years ago, we noticed that average budgets for inbound clients were down 30 percent within 12 months,” Soucy recalls. “But we grew as a company because we saw this happening and doubled down on new business and restructured our organization.”

It is understood that OutCast takes a similar approach to inbound data.

Even so, Billy Hamilton-Stent, managing director of LoudHouse, the insight arm of the UK’s Octopus Group, says while PR agencies are especially exposed to market fluctuations, many firms - especially those in the small to medium bracket - don’t have the resources or organizational structure to mine their data in a way that could inform their business.

Katie Paine, head of measurement firm KD Paine & Partners, agrees that a traditional mindset still lingers when it comes to new business. “Many aren’t interested in where their leads came from -- for them it’s still only about the in-person relationship and who they are meeting,” she says. “In the PR world, mining data is still a new concept.”