Anyone else tired of talking about PR measurement?

It’s this author’s pet peeve. Don’t be so quick to discount clips—nor attack the person who suggests they matter. Measure what you can, and move on.

Measuring public relations results has become my pet peeve. Not the act of measurement, but the conversation around it. It’s filled with confusion and debate that’s overshadowed by comments, sometimes approaching a vicious nature.

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

So what’s the peeve with that?

Few pundits provide clear demonstration of what they mean by business outcomes. These posts are almost always long on why we’re all doing it wrong—with an ambiguous reference to that mysterious term ROI—and short on practical suggestions. It’s been a while, but I’ve been to business school. I can still discount cash flow, calculate IRR (or NPV if you’d prefer), and can argue at length about the PR industry’s misuse of the term ROI.

For the record, ROI is a financial term, used to compare the benefit of an investment against the cost of investment. Quite literally it’s the “return” on the “investment.” ROI is empirical and is measured in dollars and cents. My sense is that PR people use ROI interchangeably with the word “benefit.” We are witnessing the repositioning of ROI.

Back up your blather

It’s one thing to bash clip counts and toss around impressive terms like ROI to English majors, but if you are going to downplay one approach, you need to provide clear examples. Let me provide 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 per square foot on corporate real estate. Real estate was, at the time, the second-largest expense for businesses, trailing only human resources. Because most of the company’s customers had about a million square feet in corporate real estate, this nifty software program could save those customers—imagine Dr. Evil’s intonation, if you will—one million dollars.

We drafted a pithy pitch letter (remember letters?) and placed them in a cardboard box, about one-square-foot cubed, with a string across the inside and a dollar bill taped to it. We sent it to a couple dozen outlets. A few reporters responded with complaints of bribery, but we got a call back from The Wall Street Journal. An article ran a short time later and included a little cartoon of the CEO—a Superman-type caricature—holding up $1 million in savings.

Fast-forward six months, and this little startup signed as a new customer a big bank: Wachovia (before the bank was acquired in 2008 by Wells Fargo). 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. The ROI can clearly be calculated. I cannot be convinced that clips don’t count. Besides, I’ve seen more than one request for proposal where a B2B prospect asked for a list of media placements.

Though times have changed since my days working for a tech PR firm, the fundamental question remains the same. What should you measure? Here is what I’ve committed to my boss, my company’s CMO:

1. Placements. Coverage matters on so many levels: It gets prospects excited, it validates your customer’s expectations, management expects it, and one overlooked benefit is its dramatic affect on morale within your organization.

2. Share of voice. I divide this into three distinct areas: traditional news; blogs and social media; and monitoring who is saying what, where, and when. It’s the ultimate exercise in listening, and it feeds my PR planning.

3. Referral traffic. I work closely with our SEO manager to measure traffic in Google Analytics to track traffic from press releases, placements, blogs, social media outposts. It has given us a pretty clear look at what works and what does not.

4. Conversions. I’m confident that good content makes a compelling case. I can quantify the impact of content—from sources like the above—on sales. In my view, PR doesn’t make sales; it makes more sales, better sales, and recurring sales.

Until the PR industry collectively ties its work to sales—or equivalent goals like votes, donations, and memberships—PR measurement will remain a heated debate. 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; the rest will fall in place.

Frank Strong is the director of PR for Vocus. You can read more of his thoughts on the Vocus blog.

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