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The Folly of Public Relations Measurement

The Folly of Public Relations Measurement

Measuring public relations results is fast becoming my pet peeve. Not the act of actual public relations measurement, but the conversation around it.

It seems every day now I read a new article penned by a well-intended PR expert that says counting clips is sophomoric and advocates an ambiguous need for PR need to “tie results to business outcomes.”

So what’s the peeve with that? It’s all fine, well and dandy except few pundits provide concrete examples of business outcomes. I’ve been to business school. I can discount cash flow, calculate IRR (or NPV if you’d prefer) and can argue at length the PR industry’s misuse of the term “ROI.” For the record, ROI is a financial term, where the benefit of an investment exceeds the cost of investment…quite literally it’s the “return” on the “investment.” ROI is empirical and measured in dollars and cents. My sense is, PR people use ROI interchangeably with the word, “benefit.” In other words, they’ve “repositioned” ROI.

But I digress: It’s one thing to bash clip counts or advertisement equivalencies (AVE), but if you are going to downplay one approach you need to provide examples of better approaches. Let me give you an example.

When I was a young account executive, I represented a venture-funded technology company that had a software product that could save about $1.00 per square foot on corporate real estate. Real estate was at the time, the second largest expense for businesses, trailing only human resources. Since most of their customers had about a million square feet in corporate real estate, this nifty software program could save you — imagine a Dr. Evil voice if you will — $1 million dollars.

We drafted up a clever pitch for a good story worthy of ink in The Wall Street Journal. The article ran and included a little cartoon of the CEO — Superman-style caricature — holding up $1 million in savings. Fast forward six months later and this little start-up signed a new customer in a big bank: Wachovia. When a Wachovia executive was asked, “What was the tipping point for you to risk a sizable investment in the software?” His answer was clear as crystal: “That Wall Street Journal article.”

That’s a business outcome. That’s why businesses want PR. That’s why clients of PR agencies want ink. It’s that simple.

What isn’t simple is the measurement. This case study is a wonderful proof point, but the reality is that it’s anecdotal. Finding concrete examples like this are few and far between and PR people struggle to provide adequate measures because their marketing masters are seeking tangible evidence: the lead generation team sends out 5,000 invitations to a Webinar, gets 500 registrants and yields 50 qualified leads. If your sales guys are good, six months later you’ve got five new deals. Such “business outcomes” are tangible, measurable and adjustable. News flash: PR doesn’t work like a sales funnel. However, it doesn’t mean PR isn’t valuable.

Especially in a B2B environment, sales cycles tend to be long; six, 12 or even 18 months is not uncommon. The idea that a single article can be a tipping point in a sale is about the only thing longer than the cycle itself. However, prospects do return to a proposed solution many times in a long sales cycle and require different information at different times. This is pivotal to understand. And more importantly, pivotal for PR professionals to be able to articulate to business leaders.

Consider this scenario: initially it might be a Webinar that brings in a lead. Next, the prospect wants a technical white paper. A little later they are looking for validation; a case study in an industry trade publication. Finally, they want a customer reference. It’s the case study where PR makes their money. Is it measurable? Maybe. If you’ve diligently studied your customer’s procurement decision-making process. Chances are, at a resource-strapped start-up, that hasn’t happened. Still, I’ve seen more than one RFP where a B2B prospect asked for a list of media placements where that technology has been profiled.

Why? CYA. You’ve got to cover for Big Blue (no one gets fired for buying from IBM). If The Wall Street Journal writes about your company, you may just have made it. It’s third-party validation: if the customer buys your product and the product sucks, the key decision makers can point to that article and say, “Hey, The Journal wrote about them. All signs pointed positive.”

This brings us back to the question of what to measure. In my professional opinion, PR professionals should measure everything they can within the constraints of time and resources. It’s not that one measure is better than the other, it’s rather that all are indications.

As an illustration, think of how intelligence agencies try to predict the future — that is to prevent bad things from happening — based on “indications.” Is it fool proof? Of course not, but the indications are what they are…and they are anything but definitive. This is more easily understood when contrasting this with an investigative agency — when you look back on an event there is a trail of evidence (think: CSI) that hopefully proves “beyond a reason of a doubt” that a suspect was involved in a crime.

PR doesn’t always have the luxury of hindsight: it has to deal with indications. It is what it is. So what should you measure? Here are my recommendations:

> Interviews conducted.It’s a measure of your relationship, the confidence a reporter has in your work and your ethics — if you’re in PR, you’d better take this seriously.

> Clips. There…I said it. C-L-I-Ps! Sure it’s a measure of output, but at the end of the day, particularly for PR agencies, their clients want ink. You’d better have something to show and it better be good.

> Quality of coverage. Qualify your placements by significance, what I like to call “substantive.” Is it a mention? A quote in a trend article? A contributed piece that conveys thought-leadership and makes a good leave-behind at a trade show?

> Tone. Is the coverage positive, neutral or negative? There are some handy software programs, like the company I work for now, that will do this automatically.

> Reputation. Surveys are the way to go — do you even have a reputation? Do people know your brand? What associations do your prospects make about your brand?

> Reputation II. Can’t afford a professional — statistically significant — survey? Conduct a handful of interviews and ask your customers for feedback. Even a handful of qualitative interviews can provide useful feedback and market validation.

> AVE. Ad equivalencies take some time to develop, but if you have software that can automatically calculate this, why wouldn’t you use it as one indication?

* * *

Until the PR industry can tie their work to qualified leads or sales, PR measurement will always be debatable. For now, critics of PR justification will fall into one of two camps: believers and non-believers. Measure what you can, continue to learn and do good work and the rest will fall into place. Who knows, maybe in the process you’ll patent a revolutionary new measurement tool, in which case, I’d be very interested in joining your team.

I’d welcome your professional comments on these pages — good, bad or indifferent. Note that I do moderate comments for obscenity, irrelevance, sales pitches and spam.

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Photo credit: Flickr, babi krishna, Linear measurements… (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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