For Susan Evans, the word that describes what has happened in communications and marketing over the past 20 years evokes a powerful and simple image: tsunami.
“The tsunami of change,” said Evans, founder and chief executive of Evans Larson Communications in Minneapolis, a business that in the past would have been called a public-relations agency.
Today, Evans and Teresa McFarland, a PR industry veteran who joined the firm about a year ago, get a little stumped trying to describe all the work they and their colleagues do.
“There’s not really a name for it yet,” Evans said.
“Multichannel strategic communications,” McFarland offered.
“I’m not sure that gets it all,” Evans said.
For decades, executives and marketers turned to outside PR firms to devise and execute ideas for communicating with customers, chiefly through mass media and special events. “When you go back, there were fewer channels and platforms. It was TV, radio, newspapers and magazines. If a company wanted outreach, they would have to go through those channels,” Evans said.
The rise of websites and the internet in the 1990s gave companies the chance to communicate directly to consumers and other businesses. When the smartphone came along in 2007 or so, the internet was available not just at a desk or home but wherever a person went. And in the marketing world, a fever dream grew that companies might someday be able to reach a customer at the precise moment that person needed its product or service.
In the process, corporate marketing departments and PR firms like Evans Larson morphed. They expanded their technical capabilities, embraced digital production and distribution techniques and began to operate like the media firms they relied on as amplifiers in the past.
“We’re structured internally like a media outlet,” Evans said. “We have content editors and media editors.”
Three of the firm’s 14 employees are dubbed “managing editors” who are responsible for three different parts of the country. They stay constantly informed on what’s happening in their portion of the country on behalf of the firm’s clients, who also span the country and may want to deliver a message based on events.
They have numerous ways to get the word out for a client. Evans Larson has developed a particular expertise in Facebook. And last month, the social media giant sent executives to a workshop the firm conducted for Minnesota businesses to learn the best ways to use the Facebook platform.
Evans Larson got a jump on Facebook when Elizabeth Pavlica, now its vice president for social media, discovered it not long after it became commercially available beyond college campuses. “Focusing on Facebook and incorporating it, and other social channels, was absolutely a turning point in my career, and it opened a whole new path for the agency and for our clients,” she said.
For Facebook, the recent workshop was part of an effort to get more marketers to understand how it measures the effect of various types of ads and posts. Followers, likes and impressions are not the right way to measure a campaign, attendees at the event learned. Instead, traffic, app installs, video views, lead generation, comments and sharing are more important.
“That’s the part that’s missing in so many companies, just knowing how to read analytics and knowing what to do with it,” McFarland said. “That’s one of the things we are working with our clients to understand. Part of that is we have dozens of tools.”
Evans said metrics change “all the time” in digital-based marketing.
“Algorithms change and people change,” she said. “Who knew five years ago that video was going to be the thing? But now we all have to respond to that and figure out how to use it.”
And video, long considered the most expensive and time-consuming forms of communication, no longer has to be that way. To help promote last year’s Aquatennial, Evans Larson enlisted Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey for a quick video shoot near the Stone Arch Bridge.
Standing on a paddleboard with the Mississippi River behind him, Frey at first glance appeared to be talking while paddling on water. But as Frey said, “Even if you’re not a natural paddleboarder like me, you can still enjoy all the Aquatennial has to offer,” the camera zoomed out to reveal that he was on the ground after all.
“That was done on an iPhone with a stabilizer,” Evans said. The firm charged nothing extra for it.
McFarland added, “I was surprised when I came on board, coming out of more traditional firms, we don’t even charge for video. Now if it’s a fancy video, that’s one thing. But a video for Facebook doesn’t need to be super fancy.”
Often enough, a simple video that conveys a message authentically is all a client needs. “We understand that and make it work for each channel,” whether it’s Facebook, one of the other forms of social media or mainstream media, Evans said.
“This is simply what communications is today,” she said.