How researchers get heard
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Episode #10

Stefan Byrd-Krueger: Measuring the Impact of Your Content

The chief analytics officer of the digital & data strategy firm ParsonsTKO talks about the content metrics he watches, why research orgs need to promote their individual experts more, & why a new project at ParsonsTKO aims to bring data innovation to the research world at large.

Show Notes


BOB:  This is Science Plus Story, I’m Bob Lalasz.  Your research organization puts out content, lots and lots of content.  But how do you really know if it’s making a difference in the world, much less for your organization?  My guest, Stefan Byrd-Krueger, thinks about that question for a living.  As chief analytics officer for the firm Parsons TKO, he works with a lot of big-name think tanks and NGOs.  And he thinks the sector is finally ready to level up the ways it measures content impact.

STEFAN (pull quote): In the non-profit sector we often say, well, you know, we’re not a for-profit company.  We’re not Salesforce.  You know, there’s been this belief that the ability to do these things is inaccessible.  And that stopped being true a few years ago.  And I think the capabilities are there and people are becoming more aware that, hey, this should be feasible.  This should be possible.  And so I think that sort of awareness that more things are possible than they used to be is a big part of that.

BOB:  Coming up, I talk with Stefan about which content metrics he looks at closely, why research organizations need to promote their individual experts more, and why a new projects at Parsons TKO aims to bring data innovation to the research world at large.

BOB:  Stefan Byrd-Krueger, welcome to Science Plus Story.  Great to chat with you.

STEFAN:  Thank you, Bob.

BOB:  Let’s start with a premise, that research institutions neglect the metrics of content impact.  True?  False from your perspective?  A nuanced answer?

STEFAN:  I appreciate the third option.  You know, and I want to be careful about how I talk about this.  Because research organizations put a lot of effort into – and a lot of attention I should say, into thinking about their content, about thinking about their impact on the world.  But the toolset that they use, the language that they use to talk about the impact of content have kind of slowed down, and they’ve kind of gotten locked in the past of what was possible.  So I think they put attention in the right place, but we haven’t seen a lot of innovation and evolution in the way we think about impact with content for a long time.

BOB:  We had a chat earlier this year, and I’m going to quote you from that chat.  You said, “Research institutions generate content because that’s what research institutions do; it’s the way they’ve always been.  There’s a lot of momentum behind that.  There’s often less scrutiny, however, around the result of that.  There isn’t a lot of dept of understanding into how content is consumed,” end of quote.  So why is there this lack of scrutiny and depth about how content that’s generated by research organizations is consumed?  Is it a lack of resources?  Is it a disconnect between impact and funding models?  Is it a fear of accountability?  All three of those things?  Or something else?

STEFAN:  I would certainly say all three–all of those play a factor in there.  You know, that accountability one comes up a lot.  When – anytime I talk about metric selection and KPIs there is a lot of, you know, what we call “vanity metrics” in the sector, things like how many page views did the site get overall.  A lot of those metrics are easy to default to.  They’re the ones that, you know, show up on the first page of your analytics dashboard.  They’re the ones that show up in, you know, industry benchmarks.  But they don’t tell a lot of story and they don’t actually tie to the work that we do very concretely.  The more specific the metric gets, the harder it can be to move.  You know, you really have to, you know, understand if your piece of content is reaching the right person.  And if you’re paying attention to who’s actually engaging, and what they’re doing with the content, you can’t just, you know, send it out to a different audience to goose your numbers a little bit.  So I think that fear of accountability, that if we put too close a magnifying glass on our work, it can be harder to demonstrate success.  And I think that gets to the lack of resources as well.  People fear being held accountable to more nuanced metrics because it’s hard.  It’s hard to actually make sure you’re tracking that correctly.  You know, one of the challenges that we have as organizations is when we think about impact it’s happening in a lot of different places.  So you’re going to have some of your data on your website.  You’re going to have some of the data in your email.  Some of it’s going to be in social media.  Some of it’s going to be in offline conversations.  And so being able to pull together all those stories, to make sure that you have a 360-degree view of your content and what’s happening with it, it does, it comes back to that resources question.  And I think as far as the impact and funding models there’s definitely something there.  And, you know, the relationships with funders are gradually evolving, but traditionally when you think about a grant going to a research institution the purpose of the grant, what’s on the grant, is generating scholarship.  And I think that is – if that’s the goal to generate that’s going to be the focus.  So if we can shift some of that attention from funders to not just generating the content but what happens with it, you know, whether it’s new or old content you can change somebody’s mind.  And so being able to think through the purpose of this content and measuring that more closely, I think that’s the holy grail for research institutions.

BOB:  So let’s talk about some of these metrics that can better indicate whether someone’s mind has been changed–scrolling and other signs of engaged consumption.  So one of the things that you’ve said that you encountered more and more in your projects is scroll depth.  Let’s define that first–what is “scroll depth?”  And then let’s have you talk about what it can tell us about whether a reader has been influenced by the content they’ve just read or they’ve just gotten.

STEFAN:  So I think when we talk about content consumption and measuring content consumption it’s worth it to get out of the world of data and really just think about real-world experiences.  If you imagine you send your content to someone and you sit down with them in their living room, what does it actually look like for somebody to consume content?  They’re going to pull out their iPad, they’re going to open their inbox, they’ll follow the link and, you know, click into your content.  And they’re going to sit there and they’re going to move through it.  Possibly they’ll nod their head.  And probably at the end of it you’re going to want to have a conversation with them.  “All right, so what did you think?” you know, “Were you convinced?”  And so all of those steps in that, everything you can imagine a person doing in a room, how can we get data on that?  So scroll depth in particular, that is the heart.  You know, that’s where – that’s how they spend most of that time in this little thought experiment was moving through your content.  And so as they go through the content what does that look like digitally?  Can we capture – you know, as they get to ten percent, twenty percent, thirty percent it’s a really traditional way of capturing scroll data.  There are other ways of looking at this though.  You know, could we track when somebody scrolls to the second headline in your document?  And what was the text of that headline?  Imagine if we could track are they scrolling to the call to action to register for a related event.  We could even get down to the granularity of ideas–can we track if somebody scrolled to the thesis?  Or did somebody scroll to, you know, a supporting point about, you know, the legislative aspect of a field of research?  So there’s a lot of information that we could be getting.  You know, we’re starting to see more scroll data.  We used to be the ones, we would always come in and set it up for the first time.  We’re starting to find organizations that have already set up scroll-tracking.  But even with what exists out there it’s all still pretty early days in terms of the resolution, but then also the context of that scroll data.

BOB:  So context is important.  But are there benchmarks about scrolling that we can start to talk about that demonstrate this reader was really engaged, this reader lingered – spent a lot of time…?  Or is it a combination of scroll depth and time spent that shows we weren’t there, but we have a strong “footprint,” if you will, that this person really had an immersive experience with the piece of content that we put in front of them?

STEFAN:  Yeah.  I’m glad you mentioned benchmarks.  That’s actually an active area of research for us, looking at some of these nuanced content-impact metrics and finding, you know, sector benchmarks that we could use for organizations to understand how they’re doing.  But absent that your best benchmark is your (on past) performance.  Your best benchmark is how the rest of your content is performing.  So even before you get to know how you’re doing against another organization, what is your own best work?  And that information is very, yeah, readily at hand.  And so being able to benchmark across other parts of your website against similar types of content, benchmarking the scroll performance of your email outreach versus your social media outreach, it really helps you understand how these audiences and these experiences differ.  And I think, you know, a lot of us as, you know, content creators in these organizations in particular, they understand what is in these documents.  You know, if they’re looking at anything shortly after they published they could probably just, you know, rattle off, you know, “Roughly halfway through the document, that’s where we get to the good stuff,” or “That’s where we ask people to, you know, give us their email address.”  And so I think that internal context makes this data much more interpretable, and that’s super valuable.

BOB:  So we’re moving away from vanity metrics, or we’re trying to.  We’re taking on things like scroll depth.  What else are we thinking about?  What else should we be thinking about in our research organization to adopt a more progressive, if you will, a more sophisticated set of metrics to measure how people are engaging with what we’re putting out?

STEFAN:  A lot of it, again, it comes back to those thought experiments of what is the change we’re trying to create in the world?  You know, we do this work, we conduct our research, we produce our publications, and we go through the effort of pushing it out into the world.  How do we want people to behave?  And a lot of cases for research institutions it’s going to be about starting conversations, getting into the right rooms, legislative conversations.  So a lot of that will have to do with can we track our relationships with these people who we’re trying to influence and see how it changes down the road?  In some cases research institutions are also targeting cultural change.  You know, are we changing the way people talk about this issue in the media, or beyond the media, just in culture, you know, and online conversations?  And so I think there’s a lot of – you know, you could think about social listening as a place where we focus.  You know, can we look at a community that we’re trying to influence, and are we seeing them pick up the language that we use, make the points that we’re making in our scholarship?  So I think some of those downstream, you know, people-focused, audience-focused, and culture-change-focused metrics will add a lot of value and tell a lot of the story of the impact of this work.

BOB:  You know, when I talk to heads of non-profit research organizations and we talk about relationship-tracking…  Because so much of this is about how did the content change the relationship?  Did the person come back and are they more convinced?  Do they want to have conversations?  Do they want to take action?  The heads of these organizations say to me, “But relationship-tracking is just so arduous.  It’s just beyond my people to enter every conversation they have, every touchpoint into a CRM.”  So what’s the state of play now?  Is it still that we – you know, that – is it still that arduous?  Are there other means, other systems that we have at our disposal that can make that kind of relationship-tracking a little bit easier?

STEFAN:  Yeah, there are definitely ways around it.  And that labor of tracking every relationship is – it’s a part of this storied history of our sector.  There’s just a handful of organizations that are known for having done it well.  But even those best, you know, they are conscious of the weight that it takes to manually track all this stuff.  The good news is there are lots of new ways to do this.  There are systems that can handle that tracking a bit more passively.  There are some business processes that you can put in place that let you–again, a little bit more passively as a part of the day-to-day work–capture more of this context.  Even when you think about, especially in this moment, the way we interact with each other has changed.  You know, you think about how many of conversations are happening digitally.  Like this one we’re having right–it’s happening in a digital system.  And so all these interactions are leaving more digital footprints.  So organizations can look at things like Zoom.  You know, if your organization uses Zoom, Zoom knows every conversation that anyone in your organization has had for the past year, year and a half almost.  And so there are lots of ways to tap into data sets to make the relationship picture richer without huge amounts of effort.

BOB:  So we’ve been talking about the performance of content and measuring that performance.  There’s also the way that content can help an organization across all of its systems and all of its strategic functions: fundraising, advocacy, actions, and beyond.  How sophisticated generally are the clients or the prospects that are coming to you about linking – attributing the performance of content to these other operations in the organization?  Do they have a long way to go?  Are they more open to it now than they were five years ago?  I’m throwing a series of questions at you.  But what’s the state of health of thinking in the research and think tank sector about that kind of measurement?

STEFAN:  It is a rare organization that has that solved and thinks that they’re doing it well.  I think your point about appetite for it, that has definitely changed.  That’s been a tangible change in the last 24 months or so.  I think the recognition that that content, the messages that we put out, are the heart of what we’re doing, particularly for research organizations, and being able to understand how this work spreads across the aisles, you know, the silos in the organization.  So being able to attribute the ideas back.  And I think, you know, this gets at your point before–we do all this work in order to build a deeper relationship.  And I think everyone who works for (a research) organization can think of this: you write the report, but then you write the talking points for the legislator.  Because you know they’re not going to read the report.  And so, you know, what is the value of the report then versus what is the value of the ideas that go into creating the report and can be summarized?  Is the report just a table-thumper that gives you authority?  But then how do you measure that authority as it stands behind those talking points?  So really understanding the conceptual model of your content.  How does the content and the organization relate to one another, again, within the things that any one department might generate–program versus comms versus development versus GR.  And, you know, the same ideas are flowing through all of them.  And so, you know, figuring out those relationships is a real trick, but once you’ve done it you can track the impact across all those aisles much more competently.

BOB:  Why do you think appetite has grown over the last two years for thinking this way and measuring that way the performance and the attribution of content across these systems, how content can aid fundraising advocacy, etc.?

STEFAN:  I think there’s a lot of factors there.  I think that it’s – the move to digital of course, you know, everything became so digital, and a lot of those interactions started happening, you know, through these digital platforms.  And so getting the sense that, hey, you know, this is where it’s at right now was definitely something of the moment.  I do think that there is a growing amount of, I mean, let’s call it “competition” in the thought leadership space.  And so being able to demonstrate outcomes, demonstrate impact is important for funders.  It’s important to help us, you know, figure out our position in the sector against other people who might influence in the same area.  I also think though – you know, in the non-profit sector we often say, well, you know, we’re not a for-profit company.  We’re not Salesforce.  You know, there’s been this belief that the ability to do these things is inaccessible.  And that stopped being true a few years ago.  And I think the capabilities are there and people are becoming more aware that, hey, this should be feasible.  This should be possible.  And so I think that sort of awareness that more things are possible than they used to be is a big part of that.

BOB:  I wanted to ask you about one other set of potential metrics that we often think about but don’t apply in this sector.  And that’s metrics from the publishing realm.  So things like conversation rate, conversion funnels, subscriber acquisition costs, retention (inaudible).  These are things that if you read (Digiday) this is the stuff that they’re always talking about, right?  And it’s an accepted – it’s a really useful set of metrics.  But it has never seemed to research organizations to quite apply to them because, “Well, we don’t think about our audience as subscribers.”  What do you think about those paradigms, that publication metric paradigm, how does it fit the research organization space at all?  How could it be used – or I’m sorry – how could it be altered to better fit the space and give us some insights as to whether our content is performing well or poorly?

STEFAN:  Yeah.  I do think it applies.  I think research organizations are starting to realize that.  I think more and more we see research organizations speaking in exactly those terms, considering, you know, subscription membership models.  You know, again, it’s the – sort of a myth of uniqueness.  You know, research organizations tend to have, especially larger ones, lots of different programs.  And each of those programs are going to have their own specific issues.  And each study that they – you know, each, you know, bit of scholarship is going to have a slightly different point, and so the audience might shift.  And so, you know, you have all of this sort of dynamic, you know, movement in the organization, which has kind of justified that–“Well, let’s just start from scratch each time and redefine the audience each time.”  But across–you know, especially in these larger organizations–across all the work you are talking to the same people.  You know, we understand the value of those relationships downstream of publication and our theory of change.  But sort of upstream in their history with the organization you are talking to the same people across different programs, and across different, you know, pieces of research.  So the applicability is definitely there.  And a lot of those publishing metrics are geared for long-term relationships, you know, because that’s the funding model.  It’s important to speak of it that way in publishing. It’s not the heart of funding in scholarship, and that’s why it’s not the first place that we look.  But experience-wise there’s a lot to be learned.

BOB:  Let’s talk about brand and the metrics of brand.  It might seem obvious, but why is social media the focus for measuring and managing brand?  Why is social this lynchpin for understanding how strong or how weak your brand is as a research organization?

STEFAN:  Social media’s a wonderful resource for understanding ourselves and people’s perception of us and our organizations, because there’s so much public out there. It’s a place where people go to express themselves.  It’s a place where people go to give some of their frankest and sometimes too-frank thoughts about the world and the people in the organizations they interact with.  So it’s this firehose of free information about how people view us and our works.  And I do think that is – you know, when people think about their brand I often encourage it’s not just what you wrote on the door, your brand is also what you’re known for.  When people speak of you do they speak of your good works?  And so understanding how people talk about the – you know, our issue areas, when people talk about, you know, the methods that we use, are we really being seen in the way we work, being seen positively or not?  And are we shifting that?  I think that’s a really important value in social media.

BOB:  So when a client comes to you and says, “We want to know what our reputation is, what our brand is,” and you’re looking at social–obviously it depends on what their priorities are–but what are some of the things you would look at to pull out sort of what sentiment is saying about them, what their reputation is, what their brand is?

STEFAN:  Yeah.  You know, I think there’s a lot of layers to that conversation.  Some of it is the direct mention–so what are the direct conversations that we’re engaging in.  And again, I would go beyond the brand itself and, you know, how are people talking about the work that we do as an organization?  But I also think it’s worth, you know, looking through a layer, and looking at the people who talk to you, who follow you, and getting a sense of, you know, their own relationships, and how can we use that context of who is engaging with us as a layer to – another way to interpret the way they talk about us.  But, you know, it’s social listening and, you know, that field of techniques of finding the relevant keywords and seeing what your footprint in those conversations looks like.  You know, do people have awareness?  When they speak about an issue that you cover do they speak about you?  You know, do they know that you’re there?  So the awareness and then, you know, people’s willingness to engage with your brand and your organization when they’re talking about this issue.  That’s another good indicator.

BOB:  Your team at Parsons TKO pulled in Twitter data from the top-100 think tanks in the University of Pennsylvania Think Tank Ratings.  And we both went to Penn so shout out to Penn there.  But Penn puts out an annual rating of think tanks.  So you pulled in Twitter data from those think tanks that have Twitter accounts.  So look at their behavior on Twitter.  What did your team discover?

STEFAN:  Yeah, that was a fun little project, you know, a way for us to celebrate our community, and those clients of ours who ranked highly, congratulations to you all. And, you know, it’s interesting, you know, that community it’s – they’re all aware of one another.  You know, this is a cohort of peers.  And so it was interesting just to look at them from a behaviors and practices perspective.  You know, how much do they emulate one another?  You know, do they post with a similar cadence?  And what technology do they use?  Are they using the same tools to actually manage their outreach?  You know, one of the things that I looked for and was interested to find was the relationships between these organizations.  So you have a lot of these institutes and centers and they each have their programmatic areas.  In a lot of cases there’s overlap.  When they interact on Twitter are they interacting with each other?  Or if not who are they interacting with?  And you can look at those mentions.  You know, how often does an institutional account mention another account?  And for the most part it’s their own experts, which is another whole universe of, you know, brand that’s worth discussing.  But, you know, figuring out how much engagement is there, with whom is that engagement, and how much shyness is there to engage?  You know, there’s an admitted amount of competition in this space, but there’s just as much opportunity for collaboration.  These organization can be boosting one another.  You can have coalitions of organizations that are working together to, you know, advocate their good works.  I think there’s a lot of room for growth there in terms of how organizations view and interact with their peers in this public forum.

BOB:  Are there any specifics that you might care to offer right now in terms of best practices, collaboration?  Like, if you had a new client and they were saying–you know, off-the-cuff–you did a landscape analysis and then you did a diagnosis of what they were doing…

STEFAN:  Yeah.

BOB:  But what would be some of the top two or three best practices that you would offer to them?

STEFAN:  You know, I do think that the – finding the right cadence for your audience and being able to pull in as many voices to drive that engagement as possible. Social media, you know, the first word there is “social.”  And so how can we make, you know, your social platform a place where people engage with one another?  Your first and most obvious audience for that is your own staff.  And there isn’t, you know, across-the-board adoption of that.  There are a lot of organizations that are really shy about putting their experts forward.  But experts are a huge part of your work, your audience, and your brand.  You know, I think in a lot of cases–it varies a lot–but even if you just think about raw followship, the community of experts at an organization probably have an equivalent if not greater footprint to the brand itself.  And, you know, extremes on both sides.  But – so figuring out how can you start the conversation and then have people there to help keep it going, and create an active community where the rest of the world, the rest of the audience that you’re trying to reach but haven’t captured yet can notice and have a reason to engage themselves, and to keep paying attention, rather than thinking of social as a bulletin board.

BOB:  So what kind of metrics if we accept the premise–and I certainly do–that it’s the experts in these organizations that carry much of the branding weight for the organization, that the organizational account is important but just a small part of the pie, what kind of metrics do organizations, or should organizations be looking at to tease out the value of their individual experts for the organizational brand?  So you mentioned that individuals often have collectively, or maybe even individually as many followers as the organization does.  That’s one crude way of looking at it.  But how do we measure the value of an individual expert’s followers and social weight, if you will, for the brand of the organization?  Because this is a tension between – this is often a tension within these organizations between the organization and the individual expert.

STEFAN:  Yeah, and that tension is – yeah, it’s real, and I think one to be – a conversation to embrace at any one individual organization.  I think in terms of metrics, you know, there’s the base one of activity.  You know, do we see our experts already, you know, by their own nature, participating in these places?  Are they contributing to conversations?  Are they making themselves visible?  Can they through their personal brand boost the brand of the organization and bring attention to the organization?  So I think that’s a big one.  And I think beyond that looking at engagement, and again, the types of engagement–how well can we understand who is following them?  Look at, you know, at the level – you know, this is a layer deeper than most people care to look.  But you can understand who’s following these people.  We can understand expert-to-expert what doors do they open by leveraging their own personal brand in support of the institution.  So there’s a lot of detail that you can get when you dig into the data to really understand their footprint. And I think, you know, there’s another piece of this that we haven’t really talked about yet, but social media is a very public, very active space, you know, where actively contributing information and the footprint of the brand can be seen.  But there’s another one out there which is search data.  And so can we look at the way people are searching for scholarship, and are they doing that based on institution, based on program, or based on expert?  And if you have big names at your organization, those people probably have their own following.  And even when it’s not in the competitive space of social media, you might be able to see the signal of their influence when people are searching for things on the topic that they cover.

BOB:  Do you find a prejudice against search among a lot of comms people and marketing people these days?  Everything – all the attention is in social search, that was ten years ago–nobody searches anymore, right?  Why should we bother optimizing?  Do you find that to be the case, and if you do what’s your argument against it?

STEFAN:  I certainly wouldn’t call it “prejudice;” may be fair to call it “ignorance.”  I understand it.  It’s – comparatively – compared to social it’s such a (silence) base.  You know, you get an email and a ping on your phone when somebody mentions your organization.  When you log into LinkedIn there’s a little red circle.  There’s a lot of activity and visibility for social media.  Search is just quietly happening in the background.  It is an ocean of interaction, an ocean of engagement.  When these organizations look at their website traffic data they see the social fragment and it’s, you know, usually in the single-digit percentage, maybe double-digit percentage if they’re, you know, particularly controversial as an organization.  Search data is often going to be on the order of half of traffic.  You know, anywhere from a third to two-thirds is what we typically see.  And so it’s a – you know, comparatively a huge amount of where people turn to find their information.  And every one of those people are typing something into their computer in their own words about what they care about, what they’re looking for.  There’s probably some qualitative words in there as well.  And so there’s a lot to be learned about what people think about and whether people think about brand as they’re trying to find relevant information.

BOB:  So before we talk about the data studio I’ll throw you a curveball.  What are the one or two emerging trends in data analytics for research organizations that nobody’s talking about or only a couple people are talking about that we’re all going to be talking about in a couple years?  What are you seeing around the corner that you think more people should be thinking about right now?

STEFAN:  I think that, you know, very much flowing from everything we just discussed, people are going to be pressed to tell the story of their work, and being able to demonstrate that impact.  And so being able to – you know, you can tell a story about why you do your work–being able to put numbers to that story, I think we’re going to see an increasing amount of pressure to do that.  But I think also I’m seeing that growing as an area of focus.  You know, even down to the way people name their teams and name their roles, focusing on things like engagement, you know, having staff dedicated not just to getting the word out, but seeing what happens afterward.  So I think that’s a huge part of it.  I think that’s a big trend.  And I guess, you know, it’s kind of tied to that as well.  But being able to tell that story holistically across the organization–you know, these organizational boundaries and, you know, saying, “Well, it’s just hard to get their data.”  It has been true for a long time, in part because of the effort that was always required to gain and, you know, to capture and then report on that data.  As that gets easier and easier, you know, hiding behind those departmental divisions is going to get harder and harder.  I think I’m seeing less patience from leadership when it comes to inability to tell these stories.  And I think I actually want to credit leadership.  Because I would say funders are a little late, little slow, and I think more of the momentum right now I’m seeing coming from organizational leadership to push for “give me the whole story, give me the full picture.”  And I think, you know, lastly is–and this is a shoutout to our comms colleagues at these organizations–recognizing the ability – the role that comms has as an aggregator of insight about public audiences.  You know, these organizations are less and less just focused on getting the word out, and a little bit more focused on understanding the people that they are serving, understanding the constituents of this research.  You know, you can do surveys, you can do studies, but comms is the department that’s out there having interactions with these people most often.  They have the largest number of discreet systems that have these touchpoints.  And so I think there’s growing recognition of comms – heads of comms, you know, CMOs and their ability to serve as a research arm for the rest of the organization.  I think there’s a lot of untapped potential there.

BOB:  That’s really interesting because I think the prejudice–using the word “prejudice” again–is that the drive for impact, the drive for numbers is being catalyzed by funders, not by leaders, and certainly not by communications people. And you’re saying just the opposite–it’s the leaders of these organizations and the communications staff and CMOs who are driving the innovation that exists, not the funders, and the funders are a little bit behind the curve.  Am I hearing you correctly?

STEFAN:  I think so.  And I don’t have as much hard – I don’t have numbers on that.  But I think anecdotally when I see that drive coming from funders it’s still at a fairly generic space.  It’s still at a, “Okay well, just tell me a story.  I leave the details up to you.”  And often I think when things are discretely named – I mean, I’m still appalled the number of times I see things like page views in a, you know, grant proposal and, you know – and the reporting that comes out of grant relationships.  There’s still a lot of just reversion to the mean, or reversion to, you know, whatever last year’s benchmark study was.  And I think the push to say what’s possible, you know, how can I wow, and figuring out what that actually looks like, rightly or wrongly I would attribute that to people who are being brave in their organizations.

BOB:  And by – just to be clear, when you say “telling the story” you mean telling the story of the impact of the research, [CROSSTALK] not just telling the story of the research, right?

STEFAN:  Yeah – yes, exactly.  Telling the story of the impact–what did our money accomplish?  I think answering that question is an art form and one that can be done with greater nuance as people focus more on these metrics.

BOB:  So you have a new initiative at Parsons TKO called the “Data Studio” that you have high hopes for.  And I got a sneak peak at it and was very excited about it.  So explain what the concept is and why you’re putting it together.

STEFAN:  Yeah – yeah, the Data Innovation Studio.  Because it’s not just enough to do what we have been doing–how can we push the practice forward of using data as a strategic asset for these organizations?  You know, I think a bit of the background, Parsons TKO, we are a consultancy.  We help organizations build new practices, build new capabilities, make better use of the capabilities they have.  So we do road-mapping and we do – you know, my team does consulting on data.  But all of that, again, you know–and we all like to point at the funders–a lot of that is downstream of budgets that are already allocated for things that we have done for a long time.  There’s a lot of inertia into the types of work that these organizations can ask for.  And so, you know, sometimes our best work it happens at the margins. You know, it happens in between these projects when we say, “Ah,” you know, “what if we could’ve done it this way instead?  What if they had asked us to connect these systems?  What if they had asked us to introduce this new tool that, you know, has never been used before?”  So the point of the studio is creating a dedicated space for that type of creativity, a space where we can ask “what if?” and come up with new roles for data at these organizations to create new capabilities, to give them new insights into content performance, and, you know, the way their audiences engage with them.  And we are creating it as a membership program.  You know, we want this to be something that this community can join us in so that we can make sure that we’re getting the right voices, we’re understanding the work, and we’re designing solutions to it.  The work of the studio is going to center around a series of studies.  So we will focus on one issue, one opportunity at a time.  Our first study is on content, content impact in particular, and really understanding the lifecycle of content for an organization.  And we are, you know, looking at research organizations first and foremost.  And then looking at the opportunities to use data at every step and throughout content operations, to understanding things like return on investment of the effort of producing that report, versus the talking points, and how these ideas flow through them.  So that’s the picture of what we’re doing.

BOB:  I understood that – we were talking about it as a content “map.”  Is that still the terminology that you’re using?

STEFAN:  Yeah – yeah, the content map is – that’s sort of that big picture of content operations.  So how do we think about everything that happens around content from initial ideation through its creation, its publication, its promotion, its long tail?  You know, when you think about the huge library of content that research organizations are sitting atop, how do we understand content throughout every step of that, the tasks and the roles and responsibilities of staff, and then the ways in which data can inform those tasks and help the staff of these organizations do more, do better?

BOB:  What are some of the questions that you’re going to be asking within this first study?  You must have some hypothesis.  Because it’s really intriguing, but it sounds like a huge, huge study around the lifecycle of a piece of content.  Every organization I’ve ever worked at and with would want such a thing if they had heard of it, but they never would’ve come up with the concept on their own.  But what kind of – what are some of the questions you’re going to be asking within this project?

STEFAN:  You know, I think a lot of them, especially early on, we’re going to focus on things like what are all the forms and modes of consumption and engagement that an organization services, and how can we get that big picture?  You know, I think understanding that big picture, that’s everyone’s challenge right now.  So that’s sort of just an obvious and easy starting point is to map it out and then really start to dig into the details–so, you know, we can have conceptually, you know, what does that person sitting on a chair doing when they consumer our content–and then turn that into practical solutions.  How do we actually measure this?  How do we actually build this with the tools that we have?  How do we – you know, what does it look like to aggregate this?  So answering some of those questions.  I think, you know, more broadly, and thinking about the bigger picture of the content lifecycle, I’m thinking about what does – what (do) the inputs to content creation look like?  You know, where do these ideas start and how can we use – can we use data to inform if not influence the decisions that we make about what we create?  And I think there’s a – you know, one of the things I expect we’ll find in there, if we help people measure the return on investment of the money, and I think most often the time spent in creating content, we will find that organizations are spending time on things that they don’t value and could make better use of their time if they reallocated some of that effort.  That’s an excepted outcome.

BOB:  A wild understatement, my friend.  If I run or am part of a research organization, as many of the listeners of this podcast are, how do I know the Data Innovation Studio will benefit me?

STEFAN:  I think that if you have a large team that is spending significant amount of time creating and disseminating content, and you have even the slightest inclination that that time could be redirected and spent in better, more creative, more satisfying, more impactful ways, and/or you know you’re doing well and just want better tools to tell that story, this study in particular is going to be right for you.  I think more broadly, if you have any peers, or if you’re leadership and you have lots of departments, and across all those departments you think there’s more opportunity to use data in creative ways, our studio’s going to touch on everything from the role of data and content and measuring brand, to understanding relationships between organizations and coalitions, to thinking about the role of data in HR–how can we use data to understand our teams in mission-driven organizations and how they work together?  So we’ve got a lot of exciting and interesting studies coming up and we’re looking forward to seeing you all there.

BOB:  Congratulations on the idea and the initiative.

STEFAN:  Thank you, Bob.  And thank you for all your support.  I know you gave us a lot of ideas and inspiration as we got started as well.  This studio’s going to succeed because of the people who come into it, so thank you very much.

BOB:  Of course.  And thank you for joining me today.  Wonderful conversing with you, and great insights.  Thanks Stefan.

STEFAN:  Thank you.

BOB: You can find show notes, a transcript of my chat with Stefan, and more at our website  If you liked the episode please leave a rating a short review on your listening platform of choice.  Resonate Recordings engineers Science Plus Story.  Mikhail Porro composed our theme music.  I’m Bob Lalasz, thanks for listening.