Q&A: Is the Future of PR Measurement Already Here?

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In case you weren’t aware, measurement will only grow more important in our industry moving forward.

In case you also weren’t aware, next week will be Measurement Week 2014 in our fair New York City thanks to a PR soiree hosted by Cision/Vocus that will include a slew of marquee names.

Leading up to the event, we spoke to two of the featured speakers to get their takes on the state of measurement: where it is now and where it needs to go.

First up is friend of the site and AirPR chief strategy officer Rebekah Iliff (follow her on Twitter; she’s quite good).

What is the biggest issue currently facing the industry in terms of measurement?

PR measurement currently lacks two things:

1. Industry consensus in terms of which metrics matter.

2. Innovative technologies to automate certain aspects of measurement that both companies and practitioners can agree upon.

Having said that,  I think the biggest issue currently facing the industry is understanding what to measure and sourcing the right technology to support specific business goals related to that measurement. In other words, once you agree to the “what”, you then need to have technology that can track, monitor, and give you insights into data that will help drive effective decision making.

How do we reach that consensus?

The truth is, there can’t be consensus around something that is impossible to achieve. PR metrics must be viewed holistically and there will never be one single metric that can be applied across the board. For some companies it will be traffic to a website or digital property, for others it will be whether or not their key messages were published in an article; while yet others will want to map PR activities directly to sales. Shockingly, sometimes the PR metric is about what people aren’t saying about your brand.

The point? We have to have technology to support these various aspects of PR measurement while at the same time not suffering from tunnel vision by saying “this is the ONE thing that matters.” Once we do that, we have conceded that PR is a one-size fits all discipline. In fact, the truth is, PR’s role (and related measurements) is expanding almost faster than the speed at which startups launch dating apps.

How has social disrupted the measurement system over the past few years?

I think the most important thing social did for PR was give insight into which topics are of interest to specific audience segments. It’s been a proxy for “PR impact”, which didn’t really exist before. Pre-social, the only type of data we had was visitors to a website.

As analytics become more ubiquitous, social is becoming more of a “channel” used to engage with and listen to constituents. While it’s still fundamentally about sharing, it can’t really give clarity to whether or not a business objective has been met — unless, of course, you’re talking about “social selling.”

But with PR, social is a way to understand what messages are resonating, whether or not the subject matter is compelling, etc. From our own data alone, I can tell you that highly shared articles are not necessarily correlated to content that drives customers to make a decision. But those numbers can tell you which messages are “sticky”, and this can often be just as important as lead generation or sales depending on the client’s goals.

What’s the most important new metric to emerge recently?

While any seasoned PR pro will tell you that PR isn’t about sales, every CMO or company founder will need to (somehow) justify their PR spend/budget to a direct report: the CEO, the board, their investors, etc. So at some point, we really need to be able to show how PR efforts affect the bottom line.

Not all efforts are geared toward direct sales, but over time PR should align with the overall success of a business; this assumes other aspects of the business are functioning properly and that the products/services are viable.

Disclaimer: PR can’t put lipstick on a pig, and it’s not some sort of silver-bullet-magic-trick.

Which common metrics do you think we need to downplay or discard completely?

1. We should not, would not, could not use the Advertising Value Equivalency (AVEs) to measure the value of earned media. Most PR pros I know have done away with this, but according to a Ragan’s study last year, nearly a third of PR/communications practitioners still use them. Ugh.

2. Impressions are likewise useless. I wrote this article in Mashable a few weeks ago that talks about Vanity Metrics versus Value-Driven Measurement and covers this idea of impressions. Here is the example I use to illustrate why it’s a bit silly:

Let’s say, for sake of example, that every day I walk by one hundred men on the street. They look me up and down but never say a word; they just mosey on by. “Wow!” I may think. “I’ve made quite an impression on those men, perhaps one of them will turn ‘round, come up to me, ask for my number, take me on a date, then marry me.”

Now, I’m not completely incapable of romantic fantasy, but this is highly unlikely. If you were my friend, you’d tell me that I was out of my mind, and that I need to get a grip.

I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but in the world of PR, five billion eyeballs scanning a headline of your very sexy press release don’t actually have any measurable impact. It’s a big number, but it will not map to insights about your PR activities; and it will not enable you to make better decisions about the brand you represent.

How can we make that case to clients?

Point them toward my recent Mashable article! But seriously, we should be guiding clients to measurements that showcase these three things:

1. What increases brand awareness/positive brand sentiment and builds brand loyalty

2. What drives traffic to your site and supports interactions (blog sign ups, demo requests, whitepaper downloads, etc.)

3. How you are doing against your competitors in terms of thought leadership, article placement, owning certain key messages, etc.

How can we best tailor the metrics we use to serve clients with very different needs?

I think it starts with a mutual understanding between PR and client (or if it’s internal: CEO, CMO and PR/comms teams) that PR goals depend on needs. In order to understand those needs, there has to be a fairly transparent conversation about what is and isn’t possible.

If a client says to a PR agency: “I want 2,000 people to buy my product in the next 60 days and that’s why I’m hiring you”, then the PR agency does a website audit and finds out the UI/UX is not conducive to a positive buying experience, then the agency can say: “Um, quick note – that’s highly unlikely unless you build a better environment for buying.”

I don’t think companies expect these conversations from PR pros, but they should be happening. PR people understand a great deal about customer psychology, and the things that it takes to really get an emotional response from a potential buyer. That’s part of the ever-elusive “X Factor.”

Once you establish a baseline, you (PR) are better equipped to build a strategy and plan that will map to specific business objectives; and this is the only way to have a shot in hell at measuring anything.

It’s not about writing a perfectly crafted press release and pressing send to 500 journalists or pushing it out over the wire and expecting a story. Those days are O-V-E-R. That’s not PR.

What do we think, readers? Still using AVEs?