Make PR Measurement A Priority

Technology is making the measurement of public relations outcomes easier, less time-consuming and more meaningful.  Whether it’s the tailored digital dashboard offered by companies like Trendkite or sophisticated social listening reports like those created by Mention, sophisticated analytics help prove PR’s value beyond the old metric of “inches and airtime.” This enables teams to better identify what works and what doesn’t, creating more fruitful agency-client partnerships.

That’s a goal we can all get behind. More PR agencies today are designating a measurement guru on their team to own analytics. While labeling this person a “data scientist” may be overblown, McKinsey estimates that by 2018 the number of data science jobs in the US will be over 490,000, yet the eligible, qualified candidates to fill these jobs fewer than 200,000. Perhaps training an existing staffer or considering a hire with data science experience can elevate the function for agencies.

But before assigning someone to take advantage of new tech tools to monitor coverage and sentiment, it’s best to review the framework for achieving meaningful results reporting.

Start with clear organizational goals

Although many companies retain a PR firm to increase awareness, which at its most basic can be measured by volume and tone of coverage, PR can do so much more. It pays to work with clients at the outset to set goals that will have a business impact, such as increased websites visits, attributable sales leads or attendees at specific events. Additionally, an organization may be seeking advocacy of a position or cause, like this current campaign aimed at increasing public education and awareness of mental health issues.  The ideal organizational objectives have a measure of impact already attached. So it serves everyone if a goal is “20% increase in brand awareness” while calling out three distinct ways to measure it, as opposed to the more general “increase brand awareness.”

Course-correct where needed

Advance legwork can improve the odds of achieving measurable impact. The key factors here are thorough situation analysis, competitive set, budget and target audience as part of the planning. However, like those freight company signs that warn “contents may shift,” measures for success may change as a team gets to know a product and category. Our client Wearsafe, a manufacturer of a wearable “panic button,” for example, saw its core audience as female college students and their parents. The PR campaign’s goals were to infiltrate the college market, and our storytelling focused on college readiness for freshmen. It became apparent, however, that the college crowd was difficult and expensive to reach, slow to adopt and crowded with would-be competitors. At that point, we altered our focus to target female runners concerned about safety while exercising outdoors. This strategy paid off when retailers like Best Buy and Fleet Feet began stocking Wearsafe. The point is that simple awareness among women wasn’t as relevant as awareness among female runners in key markets.

Identify the “core measures”

Many in PR use the acronym PESO to define the different types of media coverage a solid and comprehensive PR program achieves: paid, earned, shared and owned. Most firms still deal primarily in “E” for earned, and with good reason; 62% of consumers trust media articles when it comes to making purchase decisions. Social media inspires less confidence but is still powerful; 49% of buyers trust content in brand social media campaigns. So, while there may still be “trust” gaps between editorial content and less neutral sources, today’s sophisticated agencies can make the PESO formula work to produce significant results. Take, for example, just how hot Domino’s Pizza is today. The brand has pulled off a successful multi-pronged campaign – part advertising, featuring Ferris Bueller with nods to “Stranger Things,” and part incredible marketing comeback story. It literally fires on all burners.

Match tactics to goals

The rubber meets the road when the high-level thinking is translated into an implementable plan. What activities will deliver key messages to high-value constituencies to produce measurable results?  It depends on a combination of factors: what inherent news does the company have and what kind of budget is available to get the message out? An innovative B2B tech client with a new product launch or newly generated source of funding is a slam-dunk for coverage that can engage the target audience. This is evidenced by companies like Starship Technologies, which closed a $17.2M Series A in January followed by a number of restaurants retaining the company for robotic food delivery.  With news like this and a goal of producing earned coverage in a handful of key outlets, a company may not need to spend a huge amount on extra PR activities or sponsorships. If, on the other hand, there is no hard finance or new product story, and the objectives for visibility are broader, borrowed-interest tactics may be needed. This may mean events, stunts, surveys, or influencer campaigns, which can be evaluated using metrics like quantity and quality of coverage, share of voice compared to competitors, sentiment, and hard factors like event attendance. 

Consider market research

The single most comprehensive metric for PR’s efficacy just might be pre-and-post-campaign awareness research. Such research is an effective way to show the value of a solid PR expenditure for a startup brand, or a situation where a perception change is needed. A recent study on the effectiveness of podcast advertising provides clients with information like “unaided product awareness increased from the pre-study to the post-study by 47% for a financial services product, by 37% for an automobile aftermarket product and by 24% for a lawn and garden product.” This kind of data helps PR clients plan further content strategies to improve understanding of a product, service or issue and shows how effectively an audience engages with content.

Evaluate the impact, and act on the findings

Here we measure and analyze the effect of the communications on its audience. Has understanding increased, have attitudes changed, or has trust and/or preference increased? We also look to see if a campaign has affected intent by looking at relevant subscription or registration data, or if it has increased online advocacy, as shown in social media content. We can then measure the impact on the organizational objectives, often with the help of simple technology tools such as Google and Cision as well as those offered by companies like SeeDepth which claims to save agencies precious time by providing real-time data on which PR programs are returning bottom-line value. A well-documented results report reveals which initiatives produced the best results and sets the stage to brainstorm ways to build and improve for the next PR push. The report can also serve as the basis for creating case studies and award entries.

Measurement will continue to grow in importance to clients and agencies, especially when it comes to reputation management, lead generation, or impact on policy or social change. The agencies that make measurement a priority without letting it consume too much time and budget will have an advantage by offering that all-important link to the organization’s business objectives as well as the everyday measures of responsiveness, quality deliverables, and creative partnership.

How To Measure PR Outcomes: A Practical Guide

In my first New York public relations job, one of my tasks was to sort and tally the stacks of client publicity clips that came in from the clipping service. That’s right, kids, there were actual newspaper or magazine cuttings, each bearing a white tag that listed where and when the item appeared. My fingers would be newsprint-grimy within an hour. That was how we measured the PR team’s performance – by counting the publicity clips our work generated.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and the PR industry has grown far larger and more sophisticated. Our program strategies are more likely to be informed by behavioral data. We use social media listening tools, review market research, and create SEO-enhanced content. But when it comes to measuring the value of an investment in public relations, in many ways, we’re still counting clips.

Beyond Counting Clips and AVEs

There’s nothing wrong with quantifying publicity. Earned media placements are usually at the top of a client’s wish list. At my agency, we generate a great deal of earned media for clients, and even after all these years, it still feels like magic when a great story hits. But despite the thrill of strong publicity results, most clients need more objective ways of evaluating the return on their PR investment. What is that interview or profile actually worth? And how to measure the other activities that a PR group delivers? The absence of a standard formula for measuring PR success remains our holy-grail challenge as an industry.

For years, the PR industry’s response to the problem was to measure outcomes by treating earned media stories as paid advertising, with a dollar value calculated from standard ad rates. The ad equivalent formula was popular with marketers because it translated PR output into something familiar – advertising! But the problems with AVE (Advertising Value Equivalent) are obvious.

Measuring earned media as if it were paid advertising is a little like using a map of Arizona to navigate Nevada. It’s just not the same thing. For more about AVE and the industry’s response, see this post for marketing group MENG on how marketers should evaluate PR programs.

The short version of the PR industry’s evolution is that six years ago it created the Barcelona Principles, a set of seven voluntary guidelines to measure the efficacy of PR campaigns. The principles aren’t a magic formula for measuring earned media, but they help refute the AVE standard and are useful as a guide.

So, how should we measure PR outcomes? The methods will vary with individual business goals and needs, but most clients can’t afford to do matrix-mix modeling or complex studies. Here are my real-world guidelines for PR professionals.

Set a budget for measurement. This is obvious, but it’s surprising how often measurement is not considered when the PR budget is finalized. And it’s usually for a good reason; market research can be costly. Some evaluation tools are either too narrow in what they do, overpriced, or both, so a mix of paid and free tools is generally best. PRSA recommends that 5% of a given PR budget we reserved for measurement, which is a reasonable figure and one that should be feasible for just about any program.

Benchmark awareness first. It’s hard to measure progress toward goals if you don’t have a baseline. In my view, every PR program should start with a baseline audit of a brand’s media visibility, including searchable content about brand attributes, customer complaints, reviews, and earned media coverage. If favorability versus competitors is a goal, then the audit should obviously include competitive brands as well. A brand audit is also effective for informing PR messaging and even tactics, so it’s a win-win for everyone. Depending on the size of the brand in question, an audit can be performed very cost effectively.

Consider other key awareness indicators for benchmarking. Within the broad label of “awareness” it’s helpful to break down specific variables like reach (as measured by impressions), marketing message delivery, and the social sharing that can amplify the impact of earned media. Most social mentions can be evaluated with the analytics already embedded in major social platforms, or with specially designed tools for social media monitoring and evaluation. None of these criteria stand alone, and some are even arguable, but in aggregate they are powerful, and the most important factor is an apples-to-apples comparison over time.

Track earned media against web analytics. Most of our clients do this already, but there are cases where the PR team isn’t informed about what’s actually driving site traffic or conversions, so communication here is key. Then, too, not every program has the goal of producing web traffic. A campaign to build awareness for a new craft beer probably wants to drive beer lovers into stores or bars. A health promotion campaign may seek to get people to stop smoking or cut saturated fat consumption. In cases like these, tracking web searches, coupled with awareness surveys, are more effective than site analytics.

Measure what is most relevant. We’ve all experienced the PR relationship where you spend more time tracking and measuring than you do talking to media or creating results. To avoid that, focus on what is truly important. Some clients will count clips, but it may be more useful to analyze the message pull-through in the earned media generated by a PR campaign. Or it may make more sense for B2B brands to invest the measurement budget in a study that gauges brand preference in a given customer segment, or corporate reputation lift over time.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula for measuring PR success. But with a modest investment of time and budget before the campaign, and an agreement on methods that measure what PR truly does well, we can all be more successful in what we do.