When Using Big Data, Devise Metrics With Meaning

John Roderick
John Roderick

The age of Big Data has made everything trackable, arming the modern-day marketer with stats ranging from individual tweet engagement to real-time Like targeting on Facebook during the Super Bowl. So, where does a local radio show interview fit into that mix? Or even something bigger like a New York Times op-ed? Are modern-day marketers losing touch with the kind of media influence that really resonates with their audience at the expense of things that are easier to measure?

The growing importance of big data hit home for me when a client recently shared the weekly engagement report she got from her social media management vendor.

The enclosed spreadsheet was a treasure trove of juicy stats for today’s data-obsessed, executive dashboard-wielding marketing professional.

Total clicks, retweets and favorites were accompanied by fancier metrics such as proprietary, algorithm-derived engagement score and a calculation of the total addressable retweet audience.


Within this single spreadsheet an entire ecosystem of value had been ascribed to a week’s worth of 140-character missives. Were these tweets generating legitimate engagement or were they being clicked by bots or mindlessly passed along by other self-promoters looking to pad their news feeds? It didn’t really matter, because the numbers showed engagement.

Now, contrast this type of measurement with the PR department sending around an audio clip of an executive appearing on a regional radio show, or a video clip of an appearance on CNBC or Fox Business? Which is more valuable?

The real answer, of course, is that these are all fundamental parts of a comprehensive external communications campaign. In a perfect world, they are synchronized to create a drum-beat effect where customers, prospects, and other key constituencies continually are interacting with your brand on multiple fronts.


Increasingly, marketers interested in keeping their jobs need to prove the merits of their effort with data.

So, while we all may agree that appearing in the press—with its implicit endorsement by a third-party authority—is more valuable than a tweet, if we can’t convey that clearly on a spreadsheet for senior management it’s a moot point.

This does not mean PR people should start manufacturing a bunch of cockamamie new metrics. The world has enough ad equivalencies, engagement scores and reach measures.

The key to helping news-minded PR pros communicate effectively with quant-minded marketers and business execs is not to develop a one-size fits all über metric, but to coordinate on a common set of communications goals and measure what matters.

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. It’s not as simple as lining up a bunch of media-monitoring and social- listening vendor stats, throwing them into a spreadsheet and pushing Send on an email to the bosses. It is a company-specific exercise that requires input from multidisciplinary teams to determine what’s most important.

These teams need to ask themselves hard questions that get right to the heart of determining the value of external communications: Does everyone agree that shared tweets are important? Do any shares count or just shares from influential people with lots of followers? Are certain media outlets more or less valuable than others?


All of these criteria help form benchmarks against which a successful campaign can be measured.

Engagement scores and proprietary-reach metrics can be used as units of measure, but it’s the benchmarks that are most important, not the specific method of measurement.

This philosophy has been executed with precision at the Tax & Accounting business of Thomson Reuters, where PR Director David Wilkins spent his first year on the job establishing a baseline for measuring success. (Full disclosure: Thomson Reuters is a client.)

His approach was deceptively simple: Audit the company’s previous press coverage along with that of its closest competitors; work with marketing and senior management to determine priorities; dig deep into day-to-day business activities to unearth stories that bring these priorities to life; and pursue only those types of communication that drive the most value to the business.

The result was a surprisingly nuanced, multi-faceted campaign. “We found that once we determined the business’ top priorities, it opened up a level of freedom in our campaign because we didn’t have to chase everything that moved,” Wilkins said.

He added: “We could focus on taking the time to flesh out real strategies that worked, create the right stories to drive the strategies, and clearly articulate the results because we had defined benchmarks. The whole exercise allows us to spend less time proving value and more time actually adding it.”

Today, Wilkins’ campaign includes an elaborate mix of earned and owned media, special events and thought leadership initiatives working in synchronization with broader business initiatives.

While he still shows metrics—including an algorithm that ranks message consistency, relevance of audience, and prominence of coverage—they are not derived in a vacuum.

The key is they are part of something larger. While metrics alone can lead to a dangerous set of bad decisions based on sketchy data, metrics with a purpose are essential.

“My boss [CMO Tobias Lee] has been a critical driver in this process,” Wilkins said.

He added: “These PR goals are part of his formal objectives for 2015, so there is a direct line from our day-to-day PR effort through Toby to the head of the business. That creates defined expectations and accountability and demonstrates clearly how PR is supporting business priorities.”


John Roderick is president of J. Roderick Inc., a strategic communications firm in New York. Follow him on Twitter, @john_roderick, and at jroderickblog.com

This article originally appeared in the March 2, 2015 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.