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Results measurement: full series

December 7, 2011

Dave Anderson

Achieving results. Of course it’s the driver of any business. And with the significant investment allocated to the practice, achieving success in a public relations program can be just as crucial as achieving success in sales, recruitment, accounting or any other business role. Unfortunately, measuring success can be one of the most difficult parts of a marketer’s job. In this blog post, I’ll outline five methods I’ve used in the past (often simultaneously) to measure the success of a communications program. While some are exclusive to the public relations field, all five should serve to provide insights into the function of results measurement.

The Thud Factor

The least sophisticated but most demonstrative method is what I call the Thud Factor.

I was taught the Thud Factor when I first kicked off my PR career at a boutique agency in Connecticut. Back then, most of the coverage my team was bringing in arrived in the form of national print placements from industry publications and daily newspapers. During our ongoing coverage searches, we would compile the placements in a voluminous results binder. For some clients, we did this quarterly, but for others, it was an annual project.

Next, we would meet with each client to discuss strategy for the upcoming period. That’s where we’d deliver our quarterly/annual results by dropping it with a jarring, unceremonious “thud” on their conference room table. They’d know how well we did based on the size of the thud and how far away the sound reached. We’d pat ourselves on the back at the extent of the coverage and describe how easily we were able to amass the great hits in a relatively short time period. The clients always walked away impressed by our showmanship and now had something tangible with which they could share with their board of directors. It also made a great coffee table book for the lobby of their corporate office. Of course, the timing of this facade always seemed to occur right before the clients’ invoices were mailed out!

Obviously this method has its drawbacks. For one, size doesn’t matter (at least that’s what we’ve been told.) Sure, that binder looks impressive, but dozens of placements seen by the wrong audience will get you nowhere in this business. Same goes for company mentions that are riddled with misquotes, off-message sound bites, or those where your company name is buried under a half-dozen competitors.

If your agency is relying on the Thud Factor to demonstrate their success, make sure there’s some strategy and intelligence behind all that flash. A single bylined article by your corporate “thought leader,” clearly communicating your organization’s main message to the right publication/audience is gold – and certainly worth more than pages and pages of near misses.

Return on Investment (ROI)

CEOs and CFOs love  measuring for ROI, but it sends chills up the backs of most marketing professionals. Sure, at first glance it makes sense: If you increased your public relations investment by $50,000 in 2011, you should certainly see a return on your investment by at least that much this year in widget sales, right? Or maybe you spent $20,000 to design and place a full-page ad or direct mail piece – the leads should be pouring in immediately, or else it hasn’t demonstrated equivalent value. Unfortunately, promotional campaigns rarely work that way. I see three major reasons for this:

  1. Life may be short, but promotional campaigns shouldn’t be. I can guarantee you that an ad that runs for one time in one magazine will definitely fail – I don’t care how creative the piece is. Same goes for a single press release or single blog post. Now, that doesn’t mean you need to sign your life away to an annual agency contract costing thousands of dollars. Some of my smallest budget campaigns were also the most successful. But these campaigns stayed on message, kept a focused eye on their objectives, and most importantly, trusted in a consistent, long-term effort.
  2. Too many factors are beyond a marketer’s control. Let’s say you’ve achieved your promotional objective to attract thousands of eyeballs to your website, bringing in hundreds of sales leads. The marketer assumes the job is done, but the story doesn’t end there. The rest of the organization has a role to play here too. Does it have a strong, diligent sales force? Is the product/service all it’s cracked up to be? How competent are the customer service and technical support teams? How’s the economic and competitive climate? Is the region and marketplace even right for this product/service? In most scenarios, it’s the marketer’s job to deliver the slow pitch, but it’s the organization that needs to knock it out of the park.
  3. Business success isn’t always about money. Sure, your sales team may have their eyes fixed on that next big contract or meeting this quarter’s sales goals, but businesses need to think in terms of success over the next five or ten years. The value of most marketing communications programs cannot be measured by one-to-one sales dollars, but in the program’s innate ability to increase visibility and enhance perceptions. How is your organization viewed in the marketplace? Is your organization positioned well enough to achieve its future objectives? They will certainly vary and evolve depending upon the organization and its current stage. Are you setting yourself up for acquisition, growth or going public? Do you have the structure in place to retain and grow business from your current customers? Focusing too much on a short-term bump may restrict sustained growth in the future.

I consider the craft of marketing communications to be a soft science. Now, I don’t want that to be misconstrued as a cop-out, or that I don’t stand behind the value of the craft. I’ll say this: I guarantee that any competent marketer can at least double the return of an organization’s marketing communications investment. But that marketer needs the flexibility to develop and use a balanced blend of efficient tactics, the commitment to drive a consistent campaign over an extended period of time, and active participation and support of the organization’s management team.

Advertising Value Equivalency (AVE)

I’m not going to spend too much time on AVE, because even though it certainly has its merits, it has fallen out of favor with much of the industry as an ongoing measurement practice because of a perceived lack of credibility.

Advertising Value Equivalency is the evaluation and measurement of media coverage by comparing it to the costs associated with purchasing the equivalent advertising space (or time in the case of broadcast media). Marketers using this method would measure the space – in column inches or time – of each editorial placement and determine what that placement would cost in terms of advertising dollars. Some practitioners would then add in a multiplier to the amount, with the parochial assumption that a “free” PR placement has more credibility and therefore more value than a “paid” advertisement. While I personally believe there is some validity to that point, it’s unfair to dismiss or diminish the value of advertising, as it has proven to create awareness in many ways that a public relations campaign cannot.

Overall, I have tried to stay away from the use of Advertising Value Equivalency for analyzing the results of a PR campaign. Measuring the value of public relations can already be a very subjective process depending on your level of experience and belief in the craft. Adding fuzzy math and widely-disputed multipliers to the mix is not a recipe for objective results measurement.

The Point System

I’ve seen several agencies employ The Point System, a method that combines The Thud Factor with a bit of the value comparison structure that AVE tries to provide.

Like The Thud Factor, The Point System entails the ongoing collection of media placements for future presentation, but this time, each placement is categorized and assigned a point value based on the quality of the coverage. Here’s a typical collection of point values:

Type of placement* Point value
Recurring column – print and online 20
Cover story – print and online 18
Bylined article – print and online 16
Customer case study – print and online 14
Recurring column – online only 12
Video or podcast interview – online only 10
Mention in feature – print and online 8
Bylined article – online only 6
News brief – print and online 3
News brief – online only 1

*For business-to-consumer or those campaigns targeting the broadcast media, you might also have values set for nationally syndicated or regional television and radio coverage.

It’s pretty simple from there: quarterly or annually, your agency/consultant will try to outdo the value (number) from the previous period. Some months may be press release heavy while others may be spent trying to land a couple solid feature article punches. But through this format, you can get a sense for level of effort / number of hours required to achieve success through the different placement types – there needs to be an appropriate balance.

Many organizations favor the use of such a structured and measurable process, because it’s very difficult for an agency to feign success by handing over a stack of news briefs. Sure, coverage from your press release will help you quickly gain broad visibility, but it won’t have the industry-changing impact that a well-written executive opinion piece could have. Not to mention the flexibility and longevity a solid print piece can have when used in conjunction with direct mail, eblasts and trade show promotion – but that’s a story for another day!

One thing to note, while some agencies may have these point values already set in stone based on their experience with your market, each organization will have their own priorities and ideas of what types of coverage are of the most value to them. Ideally, your agency will gain a solid understanding of your objectives and priorities from the initial meetings, and be able to tailor the coverage point values to your needs and preferences.

Website Statistical Analysis

I believe website statistical analysis to be the most accurate and efficient way to evaluate the ROI of an integrated marketing communications program because it treats all marketing tactics equally. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter where your leads come from, as long as they are successfully finding their way to your site. Website statistical analysis is only concerned with the end result of your combined efforts including: public relations, social media, advertising, direct marketing, client retention, search engine optimization and search engine marketing.

Many hosting companies offer web analytics incorporated into their solutions, but an easy-to-use, more comprehensive and, most importantly – free – solution is Google Analytics. It is the most popular website statistics evaluation service on the market because it is designed specifically for marketers, not webmasters. After a quick set up, you will be able to monitor your site and evaluate exactly where your leads are coming from so you can determine the appropriate mix of marketing tactics that’s right for your business moving forward. For instance, after evaluating your referring sites, you can surmise:

  • Incoming traffic from media outlets can be traced back to public relations efforts and media placements;
  • Incoming traffic from specific banner ad links can be traced back to your advertising campaign;
  • Incoming traffic to a dedicated landing page can be traced back to your direct outreach campaign or related promotional efforts;
  • Incoming traffic from customer domains can be traced back to your customer retention programs;
  • Incoming traffic from search engines can come from a variety of sources, but will noticeably spike after a dedicated focus on search engine optimization;
  • Incoming traffic from Blogs, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia, StumbleUpon and others can be traced back to your social media efforts;
  • Incoming traffic that spikes before, during and after a major industry tradeshow can be traced back to event promotional efforts;
  • Incoming traffic from affiliates and industry associations can be traced back to your partner relationship management efforts;
  • Incoming traffic from a certain part of the country can be traced back to regional promotional campaigns; and
  • Incoming traffic from Google AdWords, Yahoo! Search Marketing and Microsoft AdCenter can be easily traced by reviewing the results of your search engine marketing (pay-per-click) campaign.

Of course, there will be a good percentage of traffic that cannot be identified including generic domains and random leads that do not appear to be tied to a specific campaign or ongoing effort. This is where you’ll need to review other areas of the website analytics data, including overall visitors per month, number of page views, which pages are the most popular, bounce rates, conversion rates, percentage of new visitors, average time on the site, and a host of other metrics. By monitoring and analyzing the report summaries of website analytics programs over time, you can get a better understanding of how your various campaigns are trending and which branding or visibility efforts deserve more of your time and resources.

Remember, marketing communications is a soft science. There is no one magic bullet that will measure the value of your efforts with 100% accuracy. But it is important to understand the various tracking tools and some of the methods used to measure marketing communications value including The Thud Factor, Return on Investment, Advertising Value Equivalency, The Point System and Website Statistical Analysis. Once you have a better feel for the parameters and types of campaigns you are looking to measure, you can select the method(s) that are the most appropriate to your needs, and tailor them from there.

How are you measuring the success of your marketing communications program? Have I missed an important one? Drop me a line and I’ll be happy to discuss!

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