Whether you’re a PR pro from Lubbock or Ljubljana, Bethesda or Bucharest, one question always comes up: How do you measure reach?
Back when the only magazines we could subscribe to were delivered to physical mailboxes, publishers could tell advertisers how many subscribers received each issue.
That didn’t guarantee that the story mentioning your new product was read by everyone—or anyone—but there was a tacit agreement between publishers and advertisers that circulation figures were an acceptable proxy for “reach.” Even if they didn’t really tell you whether you had reached anyone.
As publishing has moved online, that agreement has morphed into a belief that the number of clicks on a page is akin to someone getting a magazine in their mailbox. Of course, the numbers are bigger, which seems exciting—but what difference does it make to your bottom line?
This bogus correlation has jumped the shark. We routinely see reports in which promoters claim to have “reached” 7 billion people, expecting us to believe that every person on Earth has consumed your news. Even though 16 percent of humans don’t have electricity and only 3 billion access the internet. Not to mention that maybe 1 percent care about your message anyway (if you’re lucky).
The problem with tracking traffic is that most monitoring services, such as Alexa, tabulate hits to the root domain, not the subdomain. That means if your travel client gets mentioned in The New York Times Travel section, you’ll be able to track only the number of monthly visitors to the Gray Lady’s front page—not the Travel section.
The other challenge is cost. Alexa charges $149 a month for its “Advanced” plan. Alternatives such as Comscore and Quantcast can be even more.
Unfortunately, precisely measuring “reach” is impossible. This leaves us with two choices:
1. Agree on a fiction to pretend to believe in.
2. Measure something else.
I recommend measuring something else. Spend your precious time tracking more useful, substantive and tangible metrics.
Remember, measuring reach isn’t the same as measuring the effectiveness of your program. There’s no way to prove reach helps your organization bring in more revenue, save money, change anyone’s mind, influence behavior or accomplish any other tangible business goals. That’s where measurement must begin and end.
Reach used to be the great equalizer—not anymore. With all the tools at our disposal, it’s possible to track meaningful success metrics for podcasts, Snapchat campaigns, and just about any other sort of PR effort. Reach just isn’t one of them.
A version of this post first appeared on Paine Publishing.