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Published March 12th 2019

Interview: Glover Park Group Analyst Sedale McCall on Data Blending Experiments and the Trouble with Mass Media

We chat with Sedale McCall about the innovative ways he and his team are mixing data sources to surface better insights for their clients.

Bernie Sanders had just announced his intentions to run for President in 2020 as Sedale and I sat down to chat.

It’s a subject he and his team are following closely – political analysis is a huge part of their work and they’re busy tracking confirmed and potential bids for the presidency. “We’re tracking all their handles, their conversation, how they’re doing in terms of engagement, and the topics they’re focusing on the most. Bernie will be a huge part of this,” Sedale tells me.

He’s a digital analyst at Glover Park Group (GPG), a strategic communications firm based in Washington, D.C. and he’s passionate about building creative solutions for clients using data from a vast array of sources.

The analyst team at GPG is a fairly new one and they’re building out new processes and systems as they go. Importantly, they’re having fun with it.

During the midterms the team brought together data scientists and programmers to build visualizations of the candidates who were winning and losing, their gender, whether they were challengers or incumbents, and details about their districts.

“We learned a ton – both known unknowns and unknown unknowns,” says Sedale. They’re definitely going to continue experimenting with bringing together different data types, especially as the general election approaches.

Sedale admits the team are keeping an eye on Kanye. “Never say never,” he laughs.

I’ve heard on the Brandwatch grapevine that Sedale and his team do amazing things with social data, and I’m keen to hear more about his work.

Making complex data digestible

To start with, Sedale gives me a run down of what he actually does.

“All of our work is in analyzing conversations that are happening online. If it’s a social media conversation it’s taking that information and taking that data and trying to understand who’s talking, who are the most influential people, what are the themes and narratives that are popping up, and, most importantly, what should our client do about it.”

Being an expert analyst is one thing but, as we’ve discussed with previous interviewees, the ability to convey the resulting insights to non-analyst prospects or skeptical clients is a whole new skill in itself. How does Sedale convey complex ideas when he’s presenting data? It’s all about illustrating the data.

“I’m very interested in numbers. That’s why I do what I do – I love graphs and data. But those things are meaningless if they can’t tell a story to people that are staring at the numbers,” he says.

The team will create personas that incorporate age range, location, interests, what they read, what media they consume, and more, to paint pictures of particular target audiences or influential groups. “We try to build that into a kind of a character that makes sense to clients or prospects,” he explains.

Dealing with skepticism around social can make things harder, but Sedale has become a pro at demonstrating the power of his insights.

“We still live in a world where social media is not necessarily the most tried and proven way to get people to act in the minds of clients and companies. We still live in a world where the Super Bowl commercial is the premium thing to do in their opinion.

“From my point of view, it’s about how can we show the targeting, how can we show the efficiency of digital marketing? With the Super Bowl case you might reach a hundred million people but you may only convert a couple of thousand. We could do the same thing targeting ten thousand people and convert more than that.”

Mass media vs niche groups

Sedale’s Super Bowl example also relates to our discussion on the future of social analysis in his work. He believes that as marketers and researchers we need to go way beyond the old ways of mass messaging.

“I think that we’re going to get to a point where mass media will start to fall away more and more. We as marketers need to be prepared for hand-to-hand combat. We can’t post to a vast mass media and hope it hits the people we want. We have to find ways to specifically hit the individuals,” he says.

The combat rhetoric is telling – traditional media and social media are doing battle, and efficient, precision targeting certainly looks like a better tactic.

“Think about Instagram hashtags and LinkedIn groups. People are self selecting the things they see and we have to find ways to get involved in those conversations and moments. We as researchers need to be prepared for that and we as marketers need to be prepared for finding people where they are.”

That’s not to say that traditional forms of ‘offline’ research – analyzing media, focus groups, and surveys are not important. In fact, blending research from all kinds of sources gets marketers closer to the humans they’re looking to engage with, Sedale says.

Blending data sources

“One thing a mentor told me a long time ago is that no data point tells the whole story. You have to combine a variety of them,” Sedale says. “We might create a graph that takes two to three different metrics and plots them based on where they are. Reach might be one axis, engagement might be one axis, and the size of the dot we plot is the size of the following. Those three things combine and you have more of a story – this person has a lot of reach and a lot of engagement so they might be someone we want to tap into.”

Part of Sedale’s charge is to go beyond social. “How can we start to draw in from the research side, from traditional media, from social and give the best possible picture?”

The biggest limitation Sedale sees around social data is that researchers can only go as far as what a person publicly expresses. “We’re only looking at the person that that person wants us to see,” he says. “That’s why I think it’s so important to find other sources. The more sources you get the closer you get to that full person.”

Experimenting

I love the experimental nature of a lot of Sedale’s team’s work. From their midterm experiment that blends all kinds of information to create an insightful visualization to their attitude to mixing traditional research methods with social listening, they’re constantly looking for innovative ways to get better insights for their clients.

Big thanks to Sedale for taking the time to chat with us. You can find him on LinkedIn here.

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