Measuring PR and Comms Success With Customized Client-Aligned KPIs

I can still feel the high-fives from my second year at Zillow—then, a young startup—when a big story we pitched to drove measurable traffic to our site. Our C-suite was thrilled, and we had unwavering support to continue on our path, using data to tell stories and garner earned media coverage.

Fast forward a few years, and the number of unique users coming to Zillow had tripled. Now, the immediate impact of great coverage was harder to measure. We bent over backwards, working with our data analysts and engineers to figure out how we could tell if our work was directly driving traffic. Turned out, we couldn’t, and we turned back to tracking coverage the old-fashioned way—number of top-tier media hits, message carry-through and competitive analysis.

Things are a lot different today. Most of the big measurement services are using AI to more directly measure the impact of PR wins. We’ll see more sophistication and flexibility in what we can measure. That’s exciting—as long as heads of communications are setting those KPIs, based on business goals.

Earned media, and how it will be measured, is the most murky part of the communications model to measure today—and thus, the one that will see the most innovation thanks to AI.

A Solution: Customized KPIs

It’s really easy to see how this new ability to measure could get away from us. Our bosses or clients will be quick to jump on easy-to-understand metrics, like traffic or sales driven from a story we pitched. And we shouldn’t automatically discount that, if it’s in line with business goals.

But PR and comms are almost never about a single point in the funnel. That’s where a set of customized KPIs come into play. Here’s how to develop them.

1. Understand the business and the overall marketing strategy. As an example, at Kingston Marketing Group we create KPIs for every client engagement, but only after we deeply understand business goals. Sometimes they are perfectly aligned—say, a KPI of delivering followed links for a business with a marketing strategy focused on SEO. But also, understand the less tangible activities that will lead to business goals.

For the client focusing on SEO, we shouldn’t discount the impact of top-tier media coverage, where publications often don’t provide followed links. This coverage, in the long-term, will improve the company’s reputation (something that will help down funnel, as they’re selling to consumers) and will make it easier for us to land coverage from local outlets or bloggers, who are much more likely to provide followed links.

Of course, selling these KPIs into leadership could be its own piece—but as long as the leader is communicating consistently how they support the business, it’ll be a lot easier.

2. Define success. Share of voice is another common, trackable KPI. If a business has a competitor around the same size and stage, setting a goal of overtaking them is inspiring and easy to communicate. But there are many reasons that might not be possible—maybe the competitor has a much more mature comms organization, or they’re spending loads of money. A head of comms needs to make sure the definition of success is reasonably achievable and agreed upon by all.

3. Talk about KPIs often. Check in on KPIs weekly with your clients. Not every head of comms needs to do this quite so frequently, but the more often they can, the easier their lives will be.

When you talk KPIs, don’t just talk about progress—review why you decided on the KPIs. From the client (or business owner) perspective, this also means that they can tell you if a KPI no longer tracks to a business or marketing goal. It saves a ton of time. When there’s a shared understanding, your team and theirs can be much more efficient.

Katie Curnutte is co-CEO at Kingston Marketing Group.