Taking A Measure of PR Measurement

Jun 14, 2017

So there you are, listening to the PR agencies you’ve brought in to pitch your business. Everything is going swimmingly, and you think you’ve found your top candidate. Then you do it ask the one question that strikes fear into the heart of nearly every PR professional: what sort of PR measurement tools will you use to measure success?

At that point the air gets thick, and suddenly the only sound in what was once a room filled with lively discussion is the steady whirring of the HVAC system in the background.

It’s not that PR people are afraid to be measured on their accomplishments. It’s just that they’ve been down this road enough times to know that’s not really the question that’s being asked. The actual question is more along the lines of “How will you prove your campaign was solely responsible for improving our sales?” That goes double if it’s the VP of Sales who asked the question.

While it would be awesome if you could do it, tying PR to sales isn’t really a fair measure of the effectiveness of the campaign. That’s not just me saying that.

A few weeks ago I attended a webinar led by PR measurement guru Katie Delahaye Paine where she discussed this topic. The analogy she used was a PR campaign to sell cars. If the campaign succeeds in driving 100 people to the showroom but no cars are sold, would you say the campaign failed? Doubtful.

There could be all kinds of reasons the cars weren’t sold. Maybe the showroom never opened. Maybe the salespeople were rude or incompetent. Maybe prospects went for a test drive and discovered the interior noise level was somewhere between “WWII-era Sherman tank” and “jet engine.” Maybe everyone wanted a yellow car and it didn’t come in yellow. You get the idea.

Whatever the reason, it’s not because the PR campaign didn’t do its job. The people came. They just didn’t like what they found once they got there.

The stakes go up with HIT

When you’re talking about health IT (HIT) products or services it gets even more difficult to attribute a sale directly to the PR campaign. First of all, the average HIT offering costs many times more than a car. Would you buy a car based on what you read in a press release, or a byline article, or even a white paper?

Highly unlikely. Once you became aware of the car you’d probably want to research it on the Internet see what professional reviewers say as well as people who already own that vehicle. You’d want to compare it to other models. You’d want to kick the tires (even though that’s completely pointless) and take it for a test drive. Cars cost too much money, and most of us keep them for too long, to just purchase one based on the PR campaign.

So why would anyone purchase an expensive HIT product or service their business depends on, and that they’ll probably have to live with for a few years, based solely on a PR campaign?

The answer, quite frankly, is they wouldn’t. Most things in HIT are considered purchases that require many exposures and steps before the decision is made. The PR campaign will be useful in creating awareness, and a good content program will help walk the prospect through the decision-making process.

But at the end of that cycle, which could take several months or even a year or two, it will be very difficult to suss out exactly how much PR contributed to the sales that do happen. Not to mention virtually impossible to determine how many sales didn’t occur due to some issue that had nothing to do with the quality or effectiveness of the PR campaign.

There is an exception, at least for online sales. Google Analytics does have a pretty sophisticated way of tracking the lifecycle of a sale. Rather than simply relying on the last click, the analytics can associate all the activities of individual users together to provide a history of all their clicks, including their entry point off a PR campaign. That, however, takes some pretty sophisticated work performed by outside specialists. Given that purchasing HIT products and services is a team sport, you have to determine whether it’s worth the time and effort to attribute those sales to PR.

Oh, and as far as ad equivalencies go, don’t bother. Calculating the cost of purchasing the same space versus getting it “free” from PR pretty much went out with parachute pants and giant boom boxes.

What you can measure

Ok, if that doesn’t work for measuring PR, what does?

One good measure is web traffic. The measurement can be overall web traffic, and/or spikes that occur around a PR campaign event such as a press release going out or content appearing in a media outlet or blog.

Measuring spikes in traffic is akin to the so-called “flush test” back in the early days of TV. Executives judged the popularity of Milton Berle’s program by the noticeable drop in water levels when the show went to commercial. Not exactly precise, but it does provide some indication your materials are causing prospects to take a positive action.

Another measure is downloads of your materials. These generally break into two categories the materials that can be freely downloaded, and gated content that requires visitors to give you their name and email address in order to complete the download.

Free downloads are good for gauging general interest among those considered “suspects,” i.e., the casual consumers of your materials. Those willing to go through the requirements to obtain the gated materials are your more serious prospects.

Many organizations like to measure “share of voice” within their markets. They want to see how much of the conversation around a given topic they own versus their competitors.

A simple form of this measurement is volume, as in how many press releases did we put out compared to our competitors? You can also break comparisons down around earned media (interviews, byline articles, product reviews, or anything that requires some effort on the part of the media outlet) and positive-negative-neutral coverage.

The latter generally isn’t a good measure in HIT because the coverage in general will almost always be positive. HIT media outlets are generally looking to inform their audiences about ideas, products, and services they can use, not tear them apart like the political media. In some rare instances, however, positive-negative-neutral can be relevant.

There are others as well. The key is to start by determining what is important to help your organization drive the activities that lead to sales, and then measure the success of those activities. For example, if you know that securing 50 sales at the end of the year requires 2,500 prospects to be deep in the sales funnel (downloading gated content, speaking with salespeople, etc.), and getting 2,500 prospects means you need 15,000 suspects downloading free content out of a total of 100,000 visitors to your website, you have a pretty good idea of how to measure success.

If you do all the other steps but miss the mark on the 50 sales, you’ll also know you either need to adjust your upstream figures, or you have a problem in closing the sale. Either way, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what your next steps should be.

Measure to inform
One of my other favorite things Katie Paine says is to only measure what you’re willing to change. There is no point in measuring the value of wearing pants if you will never not wear pants.

To make PR measurement work, you must understand the actions you’re trying to drive and be willing to change the program if it isn’t driving those actions. Once everyone understands the goals, and PR’s role in achieving them, you’ll know how to measure success.

Ken Krause

An award-winning writer for his work in advertising, marketing and public relations, Ken Krause has a diverse background that includes more than 30 years of combined agency- and client-side experience. Ken has in-depth experience in technology products and services, healthcare, supply chain, consumer electronics and other vertical markets. He previously served as Vice President of Content Services at Tech Image, where he spent 14 years. Ken also served as Marketing Communications Manager at ASAP Software (now a part of Dell). His earlier career includes stints as an Account Manager at Marketing Support, Inc. and McKee Advertising and as a Senior Copywriter for Meyer/Fredericks.