A couple of months ago I was in a meeting with a client and their digital media agency. The guy from the digital agency made an offhand comment I thought was interesting and hits on a key issue in public relations research and measurement. He said he had always considered the number of posts a proxy for awareness, and the number of comments a proxy for engagement. It struck me this notion of measurement by proxy is actually the norm rather than the exception. Often, PR outputs are used to assess campaign performance rather than trying to determine whether or not the campaign actually touched and moved the targets in the ways we intended. The continued industry reliance on the use of advertising value equivalents (AVEs) is perhaps the most common misuse of the measurement by proxy notion. AVEs are an attempt to determine ROI by proxy.
We need more measurement by fact, not by proxy. We need to move beyond just measuring what the PR result is (a hit, an OTS, a delivered message) to measuring what the PR result actually accomplished – did we reach the intended targets; did they engage with the content; did we cause them to rethink existing perceptions; did we change their attitudes; did we increase the likelihood they would consider the brand? In order to move toward measurement by fact, a much greater emphasis on primary audience research is necessary. As an industry, we would be well-served by a higher commitment to primary research. Research allows us to shift the conversation from measurement by implication (i.e. x% of the coverage contained a key message therefore the campaign was a success) to measurement by fact (e.g. 10% of the target audience saw the PR campaign and 15% of these individuals plan to purchase the product in the next six months). Rather than using content links or the comments/posts ratio as a proxy for brand engagement, wouldn’t it be better to do primary research designed to measure how engaged and attached online consumers actually are to the brand and why? Importantly, efforts to determine the ROI of public relations are greatly enabled by primary research. The better we actually understand whether or not PR has influenced the consumer and what actions, if any, they take as a result, the better we can assess the true ROI of a campaign.
There are three inhibitors to the expanded use of primary research in public relations measurement – education, lack of vendor focus, and perceived high costs. Many PR practitioners lack the education and training to feel confident they know where and when to use primary research in their measurement efforts. From a research vendor perspective, there are research silos of media content analysis firms and primary research firms. While many firms offer both, their focus usually is in one area or the other. And very few firms are actively attempting to use quantitative research together with content analysis to more holistically measure public relations. (Echo Research is one company doing work in this area and I am sure there are a few others.) Yes, primary research is generally more expensive than content analysis. However I have seen content analysis systems costs in excess of $500K per year – you can do a lot of primary research for a fraction of that. In 2009 if the PR industry spends about the same amount on primary research as we do in media measurement, we’ll be making great progress toward measurement by fact.