Don’t Throw ‘Traditional Values’ Out of Social Media: Long-Proven Methods Still Have Their Purpose

Who’s your hero? A rock star? Pro athlete? I admire those who develop metrics and systems by which we prove our PR worth. As our industry seeks evaluation standards among the new media plethora, we each must champion best practices.

The role of research became real to me in grade school. I was awestruck by my chosen subject, James Van Allen, who discovered the radiation belts around the earth, propelling America’s space exploration. This brilliant scientist was from my home state and still living.

Traditional Measures Matter

As a new PR practitioner, my attention turned to Walter Lindenmann, PhD, whose research is applicable today in cyberspace. A sociologist, journalist, agency executive and educator, he opened the world of meaningful measurement to me, of:

  • Outputs (what’s generated such as the number of brochures distributed);
  • Outtakes (also referred to as outgrowths measuring what an audience understands); and
  • Outcomes (quantifiable changes resulting from a PR program), the most important measurement.

With 24/7 communications, we’re uncertain which among social media will suffer the fate of the 8-track tape of the 1970s and which will become mainstream.

How do we count comments when they’re anywhere online but on our client’s website?

When, how and who will agree to standards of various interactive measurements?

Recession Proof Your Clients

Given this unprecedented economy and despite unofficial, uncensored lines of cyber-communications, we must address the essentials: purpose, audience, positioning and evaluating against objectives – or – face consequences.

The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) survey of cross-industry marketers regarding the economy's effect on marketing budgets and departments over the last six months reveals:

  • Departmental salary or hiring freezes jumped to 57% from 45%;
  • 53% thought their ad budgets would drop in the next six months, when in fact, 71% saw budget cuts.

Harvard Business Review and McGraw Hill studies of recessions since the 1920s show that companies that maintain or increase marketing expenditures average significantly higher sales growth during the recession and for the next three years, compared to those that don’t.

Some of our clients are spending more in 2009 and they’re choosing new media methods. In a direct marketing campaign of postcards and PURLs (personalized URLs) for an HVAC sales and service firm, a direct mailing obtained “free” email addresses from those enticed to a customized micro-site for a chance to win a Wii or a guarantee of free downloadable tunes.

Online, the current, inactive and prospective customers ranked five issues such as older equipment or indoor air quality/allergies. Our client then followed up in priority order of its business plan, offering new heating and cooling or air purifiers, for example, as solutions. The campaign paid for itself in the first month.

Standards for Social Media

We can incorporate Lindenmann’s outputs, outtakes and the most vital measure, outcomes, in some of the following ways within new media:

  • One output measurement is setting up Google Alerts to determine a news story’s exposure. Another output is the number of emails sent or opened in a campaign.
  • Outtakes measure audience understanding of your messages. A pre- and post-survey is valuable here. Outtakes can serve as a principal gauge of outcomes because you often learn how or how much they’ve been influenced and where campaign results are headed.
  • An outcome could be a resulting site traffic bump or any type of conversion. Count the leads generated or sales. A first conversion in our client example was moving people to the microsite. An outcome was the various types of sales increases.

Critically, Lindenmann’s outcomes are the same as core social media metrics: engagement and persuasion.

Call for Measurement Champions

In mining facts and figures, there are vendors developing programs to gather, track and evaluate for us – to shine light into those figurative black holes. Many hope for solutions as perfect as the software that allows us to build simple websites without becoming HTML experts.

Still, whether driven by sales, vendor/procurement, MBOs or KPIs, we must tie metrics to a business plan. We must demonstrate value with proven impact – quite simply, what’s working and why.

Each of my staff serves as a content expert in a social media area, allowed to investigate, share findings and help teammates apply best practices. We must continually adapt with the same ease as we talk on the telephone, albeit today, it’s through a headset in our cars.
In meeting Dr. Van Allen and Dr. Lindenmann long ago, my gushing about their indelible marks in their fields seemingly embarrassed both modest but remarkable men. Instead of feeling self-conscious, I embraced my inner-intellectual nerd, and the commitment to conducting research. We must willingly, continually test processes, to prove our work’s worth.

Lore McManus Solo, APR, is Principal and VP/PR at Strategic America, an integrated marketing firm in Des Moines, Iowa and a Worldcom PR network member. She serves on Worldcom’s board as chair of its Online/Interactive Initiative.