The convergence of technology and persuasion means innovation is constant and we never reach the limits of what’s possible. It’s a great way of looking at what’s happening in the public affairs world.

As we head into 2014, it’s an exciting time for public affairs professionals and for the profession itself. The highlight is that we have innovations of our own, and our colleagues in marketing are playing catch up to apply our effective methods of using data and microtargeting to consumer and branding campaigns. In talking to public affairs leaders from all aspects of the business, six trends emerged as the ones that matter now.

Data is the new king

The availability and innovative use of data is transforming public affairs. Polling is not enough anymore. Big data approaches to building broad-based coalition and grassroots support is the new requirement of successful efforts. Public affairs has become more about how we apply insight-driven marketing to plan, make decisions, recruit supporters, and optimize campaigns.

Access to data has become much more affordable because of the proliferation of content driven by the convergence of sophisticated data. As a result, clients expect more informed campaign planning and optimization services that draw on the available “big data” insights into their stakeholder audiences.

“Our clients, big and small, rightly expect a 360 degree campaign,” says Katie Burke, the global chair of public affairs at Edelman. “That simply isn’t possible without the insights from research on the front end, and throughout a campaign, and without the ability to reach and engage stakeholders through social/digital channels in real time.”

Aaron Guiterman, vice president of digital strategy at DDC Advocacy sees the current trend as “moving beyond the mysticism of how to use social media to how we use data.

“When we plan a public affairs campaign, it’s not just based on demographics anymore,” he says. “That’s just a starting point. We bring in data to understand values, beliefs, and behaviors to inform our strategy and targeting. What we have is the convergence of the consumer marketing model with political campaigns.”

In fact, Guiterman thinks political and public affairs professionals are leading the way in using data: “Now these techniques are being picked up by brand marketers.”

According to Burke, Edelman is focusing on integrating research and digital into every campaign they run, whether for communication needs or as a more effective approach for recruitment and engagement.

Will the question of whether “my data is bigger than your data” be the differentiator for campaigns in 2014?

Step aside brands, stories and people rule

With trust in government at an all-time low, campaigns and communications strategies that focus on telling the stories of people affected by public policy are more important than ever. The trend is for more emphasis on the use of “real people” and voices that lend authenticity, says Bill Teator, president and CEO of Capital Advocates.

A few ways this trend is showing up, according to Teator, is through fewer voiceovers in TV spots, fewer talking heads as story tellers, and with communication that highlights real people expressing the impacts of policy or politics on their own lives, in their own words.

Over the summer, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ran a campaign with these attributes. The Free Enterprise Tour featured a contest to pick two “tour guides” for a two-month, cross country trip to meet people and share their stories of what free enterprise means to the American economy.

Sheree Anne Kelly, vice president of the Public Affairs Council, is also tracking this trend. “The campaigns I’m seeing that are very effective right now are more people-focused and personal,” she says. “The organization’s brand is disappearing.”

Two other campaigns where stories and people rule, according to Kelly: “The Small Business Saturday” campaign by American Express (winner of many awards), and the “I Make America” campaign by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers.

The traditional engagement funnel is dead; enter inbound marketing

The reality today is most first connections to an issue or cause are typically made through a friend (word of mouth) or through some of that highly targeted content made possible by advances in our use of data modeling. The result is fewer people following the traditional engagement funnel.

The impact of this shift is that public affairs managers, and their counterparts across the organization in marketing, community relations, and public relations, have to work collaboratively and differently to earn their way into the hearts and minds of potential activists. How do we do it? In the much quoted words of Craig Davis, the former chief creative officer of J. Walter Thompson Worldwide: “We need to stop interrupting what people are interested in and be what people are interested in.”

Petri Darby, vice president of Raise Your Hand Texas, has used the Davis quote to educate the organizations where he’s worked about the death of the traditional engagement funnel giving rise to inbound marketing as the key to building a strong and loyal supporter base. “Inbound is all about creating, optimizing, and distributing relevant content across channels to be found by your target audience who then choose to engage with you.

Inbound marketing, typically defined by unpaid channels, drives 88 percent of website traffic and consists of things like organic search, content marketing, social media, blogs, opt-in email subscriptions, video, and others.”

Great content is the most important ingredient to succeeding in this new  environment. Alignment on the strategy to build a supporter base is critical since the resources to produce content and manage the brand’s interaction with stakeholders typically spans many departments and budgets.

Paid advertising is not just for the well-heeled

Before the Internet, public affairs campaigns would run full page print ads in beltway publications and national newspapers. These placements were, and still are, out of budget reach for many advocacy groups trying to impact public policy in Washington. But now with digital ads, even the most frugal campaigns are able to participate in the paid advertising arena to win hearts and minds.

“Online advertising is increasing, and will continue to increase because it is cheaper and easier to target,” says Michael O’Brien, principal of MOB Advocacy.

Elissa Dodge, partner at Qorvis adds, “The cost of entry is so low now and the capabilities to target and retarget are so advanced, that it’s a very cost effective way for most organizations to reach their target audience.”

Once a cookie is placed on a person’s computer, ad retargeting technology opens up all kinds of possibilities for presenting ads to that person for different campaigns where the activist profile is similar. Guiterman notes the use of retargeting is still in its early adoption phase among the public affairs community, but will continue to increase.

Laughter is the shortest distance between two people

Changing how people think about an issue is one of the most important jobs of a public affairs manager. Using humor to break through and connect in a memorable way is growing in popularity, but not every issue or organization is appropriate for this technique.

Still, a surprising number of groups are finding creative ways to use one of the oldest persuasion techniques around to disarm opponents and shift focus. Humane Watch, a campaign by the Center for Consumer Freedom, has been using humor skillfully to advance its watchdog mission. Watch the campaign’s “lawyers in cages” video for a terrific example. The Defeat the Debt campaign has also produced several great print, digital and video pieces that use humor to influence the tone, nomenclature, and sentiment towards the public debt debate in Congress.

Whether you are inclined to support either of these causes or not, the use of humor has positioned the message of these campaigns in fresh and unexpected ways. As a result, stakeholders are talking about them, existing supporters are freed up, and both have received earned media hits that traditional issue ads would not have.

Measure or go on defense

Social media allows us to know and understand our stakeholders better than ever before. Now we have more data about their behavior, interests, and media consumption habits, and the ability to measure everything.

Public affairs strategists and agencies are just beginning to scratch the surface of what’s possible. One of the impacts of the advances in data insights: organizations are applying more scrutiny when it comes to how money is spent. There’s also a heightened interest in measuring the value of the public affairs function.

According to Kelly from the Public Affairs Council, all the players—corporations and associations—want to know how every dollar is being spent and what return on investment that’s getting them. “Clear metrics to measure ROI will be on everyone’s radar screen [in 2014], if it’s not already,” she says.

If always playing defense with your members, board or donors is your idea of a good time, then ignore the measurement trend. But ROI is one of those topics that never dies, and our data-infused work makes this a conversation we should be seeking out.

Suzanne Zurn is a public affairs and strategic communications consultant in Washington, D.C. For 20 years she has helped organizations and companies with strategy and the latest techniques to influence public policy.