The new checks and balances you need to consider in the ever-evolving digital age
Industry critics and insiders alike have long lamented the Micky Mouse metrics like AVE (Advertising Value Equivalent) and OTS (Opportunity to See) that so many public relations practitioners cling onto so dearly. Indeed, AVE’s ubiquity is its only redeeming quality. Clients understand it, it’s a staple of communication schools’ curriculums, and above all, it’s easily quantifiable in a tidy Excel doc.Despite these many conveniences, however, global industry bodies are increasingly turning their backs on the misleading metric. In May 2017, the UK’s Institute of Public Relations announced an institute-wide ban of AVEs. Meanwhile, Kevin Taylor, Chair of the Professional Practices Committee, proclaimed, “anyone attempting to use them [AVEs] today is fooling themselves, fooling their clients, and failing the profession.”
While this outdated and obsolete approach fails to measure traditional PR’s effectiveness, nowhere is it less accurate than online. Namely, social media introduces a dizzying number of variables to the evaluation equation. For example, should shares carry more weight than comments, and comments more than likes? Are users who actively watch Instagram Stories more engaged than those who passively scroll the feed? Do selfies of influencers cradling products induce anything more than cringe from their followers, or do stylised shots result in greater brand lift?
Whatever the case, when wading into this debate it’s important to keep one’s hindsight bias in check. After all, it’s far easier to pass criticism on past processes than suggest new and novel ones to take us forward. As much as industry bodies are loathed to admit it, AVEs did have their time and place, and though meaningless in isolation, remain valuable if only to show the ROI sales-focussed managers crave.
In fact, AVE’s enduring presence as the dominant measurement methodology can be traced back as far as the 1940s. Some seventy years later, the scales have since tipped in the opposite direction, and an entirely new set of problems has emerged. In the age of big data especially, today’s practitioners no longer have to grasp at made-up metrics for validation. Rather, they have so much information available to them that determining which is meaningful versus which is arbitrary is increasingly challenging. Worse still, this leads many PRs to conflate measurement – the collection of data – with evaluation; the analysis required to produce insights and improve the process for next time.
Nonetheless, despite such reservations circulating almost since PR’s inception, no meaningful steps have been taken to develop a more holistic and all-encompassing metric. This is because evaluating PR, more than any marketing discipline, requires a qualitative, not quantitative approach. One-dimensional metrics such as impressions and reach, which speak only to the number of eyeballs that see a post, provide no insight into the outcomes that may, or may not, result. These metrics are, essentially, entirely fabricated. They’re nothing more than the invention of Silicon Valley engineers. If fostering high engagement does nothing to achieve a company’s broader business goals, relentlessly pursuing it serves only in Facebook, Twitter and Google’s interest, not their own.
In this sense, the only metric that remains reliable is ROI. Where things begin to fall apart, however, is when practitioners lean on these buzzwords as examples of ROI. Oh, two thousand people “engaged” with your post? That’s lovely, but how many converted to customers? How many now view your brand more favourably?
Similarly, where followers are fickle, genuine fans of a brand are not, and distinguishing between each is crucial. Doing so, however, requires that practitioners abandon their complacent ‘one stop shop’ approach to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter’s native analytics, and instead read between the lines for the rich insights that lay beyond. Merely tallying the engagement generated by a social media campaign and calling it a day doesn’t suffice. Doing so, quite simply, is not comparing apples with apples. For one, comments undoubtedly indicate a higher level of interest than likes and shares more than comments. How about cross-platform evaluations; are Twitter retweets equivalent to Facebook shares? Where do Stories come in? In terms of evaluating ROI, should these then be ascribed different dollar values? $1 for a like, $2 for a comment, and so on?
The short answer? We think so. However, again, an arguably more nuanced approach is required; one that takes into consideration the sentiment behind this engagement and values it accordingly. Practitioners should, for example, give more weight to comments that lavish praise than those that generically exclaim “Love this!” (which is most likely to be left by a bot anyway) and steer away from using constant giveaways to feign engagement. Likewise, contrary to popular belief, all publicity is most certainly not good publicity. Comments criticising a brand should not be swept under the rug and used to inflate overall engagement.
Finally, stepping away from the complexities presented by social media itself, evaluation should also be tailored to the individual objectives and KPIs of a campaign. Ultimately, social media is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Outtakes and outputs are only one piece of the PR puzzle, and in today’s increasingly data-saturated world, it is easy to overlook the most important: outcomes. Fortunately, the solution to this is far more straightforward. Following every social media campaign, practitioners must ask themselves: “Relative to what we set out to achieve, what effect did this campaign have in the real world?”
Work with and ask clients at the beginning of the campaign/month:
- What is it you want to achieve with this push/launch/play?
- What role does PR, social, an event etc play to meet this?
- Present KPIs to measure success beyond likes or reach
- Track against this and pivot and test new methods along the way
Most of this is common sense. If you work in communications, talk to your colleagues about it and they’ll undoubtedly agree: an industry-wide collaborative effort is required to develop a better universal metric for evaluating PR’s effectiveness, one that looks past purely how many times audiences receive a message but instead to the attitudinal and behavioural change that results. Despite this, whenever articles like this periodically surface, practitioners nod in agreement, a brief conversation is begun, and by report week the subsequent month, forgotten entirely. Why? Because the alternative, a qualitative, not quantitative approach, is a whole lot more work and requires greater financial investment.
However, it is only those agencies that rise to the challenge—those that use all the data available to them to best serve their clients—that will thrive going forward. PR is, after all, a discipline inextricably interwoven with reputation management, and by extension, public opinion.
If you would like to talk to us about how to better get things humming for your brand or business, get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Imagery source: https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/intelligence/the-brand-influencer-power-struggle