Don’t Assert Leadership. Prove It.

PR lessons in using internal data to establish credibility and leadership.

My colleague Melissa Burns admonishes new clients that the marketplace is “full of leading leaders who lead.” Her point is that leadership is not asserted in the first sentence of a press release; leadership is demonstrated. Is there anyone in the universe who believes that hackneyed “… the leading company in…” phrase that typically follows the very first comma? Personally, I highly doubt it.

When a true leader issues a press release, the one word you’re unlikely to find in it is “leader.” So how then does a company, particularly a young company, distinguish itself from its lesser competition and prove to the market it is a leader?

There are several attributes that a company can communicate to showcase leadership. Virtually every book or article on this topic that I have read posits that leadership begins with “a clear and concise vision.” While it is definitely important to communicate vision, that alone does not prove leadership, even if such a vision is the boldest, most disruptive or game changing vision ever. Nor does having the best product or service make a company a market leader.

The attributes that best prove leadership are measurable. A company that has the best vision but has few customers, few investors and little use of its product or service is hardly a leader. Conversely, a company that has no comprehensible vision yet has more customers, more revenue or more usage than its peers is without question the market leader.

Proving leadership really comes down to data. Virtually all companies – certainly all leading companies – collect data. I’m not just talking about topline data such as how many customers a company has or how much revenue it makes in a year, though that information is certainly important and helps in establishing (not proving) leadership. I am talking about unique, interesting and therefore newsworthy data from the use of a company’s products or services – the kind of information that only a leading company can communicate. It’s not only about big numbers; the data must be interesting to a publication’s readers. Communicating data has no value if no one sees it, and therefore won’t be of value in proving leadership. But finding those interesting data points and using them correctly can result in important industry trade, business and consumer press.

One of the best examples I’ve seen for using unique data came during the early days of the mobile Internet from the company Opera Software. Opera and several of its industry peers were engaged in what was dubbed the “mobile browser wars” – the quest for global dominance in the mobile phone Internet browser market. Opera was an early player in the space, but it’s fair to say that its browser did not possess as good a feature set, functionality or speed as some its rivals. But remember, having the best product in the market does not prove leadership, nor does having an inferior product preclude a company from being a leader.

What Opera had that its rivals did not was data. Boat loads of data. With its mobile browser installed on millions of mobile phones around the world, it was able to collect statistically relevant information about how its product was used. Every quarter throughout the year Opera issued its “State of the Mobile Web” report. The report analyzed various data points such as the regional differences in types of phones used, the most popular websites visited from mobile phones, time spent viewing websites via mobile, and so forth. Only a leader possesses this kind of data.

PR nerd that I am, I’m always looking for more good examples of best practices for using internal data that enhance the perception of market leadership. So I was excited to find yet another high-quality example from a new, young company effectively using its internal data to demonstrate its market leadership.

This other company not only explained the data and provided a visual representation of it, the company even created an interactive website where people can go and play with the data itself, getting even deeper into the stories these data points tell.

The data was also entirely unique. No other company had ever used this type of data before – at least as far as I could tell in my research for this article – making it even more interesting to the media, and the media did find it interesting!

I first found the story about this company and its data on Gizmodo, one of my favorite tech blogs. But a Google News search showed that story was picked up not only by trade media, but also by a large number of daily local and weekly newspapers as well as national business news outlets. Though the data was entirely U.S.-centric, coverage extended to all corners of the globe. Within only three days after the announcement I found articles in at least six different languages beyond English. It is the kind of campaign success for which all PR practitioners strive; a PR home run!

I would love to tell my clients about this use of data, but I can’t. I can’t even tell my colleagues or employees about it. But it’s a story that must be told, because businesses that want to establish credibility or leadership in their respective markets will most certainly benefit from the lessons of this contemporary case study. My dilemma is that the issuing company is PornHub, and the data it showcased involved the most popular porn search results in the U.S. as well as an assessment of how long people in each state spend watching, um, videos on its site. PornHub provided an interactive map on which a visitor can choose any state and get its top three search results plus the average length of time for visits to It is a brilliant bit of PR that is at once compelling, fascinating and hilarious.

Sample PornHub DataThe analysis has some surprises, which is always important when telling a story with data. It’s not necessarily interesting nor newsworthy if the data tells us something we already know. One surprising fact, as an example, is that people in Mississippi spend more time on PornHub than do people from any other state. Mississippi. Another surprise, people in New England spend the least time – five out of six New England States occupy the, er, bottom slots in the ranking of states by time spent (Maine ranked 43).

The search results show that there’s an understood lexicon of pornography – what one might call industry jargon – and by its use shows a distinct difference between one state and every other. I personally find it hilarious that local publications in places like Miami, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and St. Louis put those porn terms in their headlines. Do you know how difficult it is to get industry jargon into any publication, let alone a daily newspaper?

Kudos to the PR and marketing team at PornHub. That was a masterful bit of PR they executed. It’s just a shame I’ll never be able to discuss it openly in a business setting.


John S