The PR Measurement Treadmill

PR measurement
I recently heard Shel Holtz on the Oct. 22 edition of his For Immediate Release podcast (with Neville Hobson) talking about the WPP communications conglomerate and its recent stronger-than-expected revenues for PR services. The explanation offered by WPP was that as social media have become more important, effectively placing stories in the mainstream media is more valuable, because that’s what helps seed the social media discussion.

I think that’s exactly backwards.

Some companies may be thinking in this way, but if so they are doing the right thing (increasing their PR focus) for the wrong reasons.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m as big an advocate of social media as you’re likely to meet. And it’s not just because I’m 6′ 6″.

But using mainstream media stories to generate blog buzz is like the Minnesota Vikings giving Adrian Peterson the football to set up their play-action passing game. Having a record-setting rusher does cause the defensive backs to creep closer to the line of scrimmage, which with a competent quarterback (always a question for the Vikings) will enable more long pass completions. But getting Adrian the ball is the strategy; Brooks Bollinger’s improved passing is a welcome byproduct.

Likewise, mainstream media stories are “the real deal.” They are not primarily a means to the end of getting social media buzz. Social media have their biggest punch when they break through to generate mainstream media coverage. Like the guy who tried to cancel AOL. He did a blog post which led to New York Times and NBC Today stories. He didn’t pitch the Times and NBC to get blog traffic.

When his story made the leap from the blogosphere to the mainstream media, it did generate huge traffic to his blog. So much that it crashed his server. But the blog buzz (aside from being an end in itself) was a measure of the attention generated through traditional media. It wasn’t a goal of the mass media stories.

One of the benefits of social media is that they can give a mass media buzz biopsy, as Kami Huyse said in an excerpt of an interview highlighted in the same Oct. 22 FIR podcast. It was part of a report from Eric Schwartzman from the PRSA International conference in Philadelphia. Kami said:

Blogs are wonderful for analytics. You get all kinds of great numbers from blogs. How long did somebody look at a particular article? What did they come search for? How did they come to your site? By what search word? Once they’re in your site…do they use your internal search engine, and what do they search for there? Do they find it, or not?

Then Eric said, “I totally agree with Kami. I believe that the true value of new media communications and online PR is the ability to measure buzz and to prove it with numbers as never before.” You can hear the full interview at Eric’s On the Record podcast.

I agree with both Kami and Eric to a point. If you have skeptical business leaders who don’t believe anything has value unless you can “prove it with numbers,” social media can provide a lot of data.

But blog buzz is only the most immediately measurable byproduct of news media stories. Most word-of-mouth happens away from the web. People used to say “Did you see that story on the news last night?” around the proverbial water cooler. Now it’s at Starbucks. Unfortunately, that buzz can’t be easily or economically measured.

Web traffic, whether to a blog or a traditional web site, is just one concrete way of measuring results. And because web sites give such plentiful data, including counts of “conversions” to the desired consumer action, they are over-valued and over-analyzed.

Social Media tools are like a thermostat. They measure word-of-mouth buzz (temperature) and help send signals to raise (heat) it. And they are particularly effective for niche content that can’t attract a mass audience.

Mass media are like a furnace, kicking out the buzz BTUs. You don’t buy a new furnace to improve your thermostat reading. And if blog traffic is the way you measure your mass media PR, you will seriously underestimate your effectiveness.
If you get mass media coverage through your PR efforts, that’s the big win. And social media engagement is worthwhile in its own right. But mass media stories shouldn’t be seen primarily as means to blog buzz; they are, if not an end in themselves, at least a good in themselves with many consequent benefits, one of which may be blog discussions.

I have two main options for my personal exercise during my winters here on the frozen tundra: playing pick-up basketball or running on a treadmill. With the latter I get “all kinds of great numbers,” such as total time, average miles per hour, something called METS and a seemingly precise measurement calories burned. When I play basketball, however, I don’t get any of those “wonderful analytics,” but I get a lot more whole-body benefit through running and jumping, starting and stopping quickly. And I guarantee that I burn more calories. But I can’t “prove it with numbers.” Precise measurement doesn’t necessarily correlate with greater benefit.

I’m feeling another metaphor coming, but I think I’ll just leave it for now.

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Author: Lee Aase

Husband of one, father of six, grandfather of 15. Chancellor Emeritus, SMUG. Emeritus staff of Mayo Clinic. Founder of HELPcare and Administrator for HELPcare Clinic.

0 thoughts on “The PR Measurement Treadmill”

  1. Wait just a minute, Lee. A PR firm spins a story about their profits? That is simply unfathomable.

    From a PR perspective, the greatest thing about social media is that you can take your message straight to the public, rather than going through the MSM middlemen. And if the MSM latches onto a story, so much the better, but it’s not the goal.

  2. You’re absolutely right, Ben. I was kind of conflicted in writing this, because, as I tried to say, social media are great in themselves and so are MSM stories. I don’t think PR firms should be positioning themselves as the way to get into social media.

    I completely agree about the benefit of social media being directly connecting, in a two-way conversation, with customers and stakeholders. MSM and blogs each have value, and positioning MSM as a way to get blog mentions is underselling PR’s contribution.

    And yes, if MSM pick up the story from a blog, that’s a huge bonus.

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