Here’s a topic you won’t have a chance to discuss around the table during your cancelled Thanksgiving dinner: the state of communication measurement. It would have been a discussion worth holding.
As PR marks Communication Measurement Month in November, measurement seems to be continuing its upswing of recent years. Ironically, the global pandemic, is partially responsible.
As Katie Paine, the self-proclaimed Queen of Measurement, says, “Everything [communicators do] is being measured more now and measured better.”
That’s because the economic downturn has left businesses with little room for error. “Since everyone is being more resource-conscious, you have to get things right fast. And you have to measure,” says Johna Burke, global MD at AMEC, the communication measurement organization.
Equally vexed, the C-suite is demanding more data from communicators to understand what messaging is working. Communication measurement, she says, used to be a nice-to-have. It’s a must-have “in this crisis,” she adds.
2020, Burke believes, may show a steeper incline in measurement “than we otherwise would have projected.” In part, this is a quantity issue. There’s more communication to measure as brands are communicating far more than they did previously with employees.
Like Burke, Paine reasons that economic uncertainty is a main driver in communication measurement’s rise this year. “We’re in a permanent state of anxiety,” Paine says, and when there’s uncertainty “people want certainty and data. They want answers. Measurement provides those answers.”
As Paine said early in the pandemic, ‘Data is your PPE.’
There’s another cost factor. “Measurement of PR and communication is so cheap compared to measuring other things,” Paine says. Since communication measurement is not a huge drain on budgets, “I don’t see anybody cutting it.”
Paine describes the communicator’s lament at this time. “’I don’t know if what I’m doing is working or not. And I can’t afford to make a mistake because I’ll get fired, lose my job or mess things up. So, I need more data.’” As a result, communicators are doing “way more surveys and asking their stakeholders more…they’re doing much more measurement because it’s an uncertain time.” In addition, boardrooms, she says, are seeking more data. “They want to know if things are working and if not, how can we make them work?”
She cites the example of Georgia-Pacific, whose paper products were in great demand early in the pandemic. Its external message, Paine says, was not to panic. The company could track message pickup, message amplification and how its message were playing on social. “It wasn’t a question of making more sales. Instead, the concern was people being able to find toilet paper, posting pictures of themselves finding it and feeling happy about it,” she says.
For measurement advocate Mark Stouse, the high-volatility environment of the pandemic means you need to measure more often. Owing to the “swirling, changing environment,” you need to run data more regularly through regression analytics to capture changes in relationships between causes and effects.
The coronavirus pandemic is one reason companies communicated internally more in 2020 and are measuring its effectiveness. In the US, companies also needed to gauge employees’ attitudes on social and racial issues.
“Internal communication measurement is probably the number one most-important thing [companies are measuring] these days,” Paine says. In this environment, “You need to understand what’s moving your employees.”
On the business side, “You have to measure whether or not they are getting the material they need to do their jobs well,” Paine argues. In addition, employers need to know if “employees are feeling disconnected or looking around for another company to work for because they’re so mad at how you responded to [the murder of George Floyd, for example].”
Moreover, surveying employees and other stakeholders is relatively inexpensive. “And people are home, so they’re responding” at higher rates, especially when there’s an incentive, Paine says. When asked what small PR teams can do quickly to begin measuring, Paine doesn’t hesitate: “Do a survey,” she says.
For Stouse, another incentive to analyze survey and other data transcends the dual pandemics. “Too many marketers and communicators know so little about their audiences and their sentiments about their brand, their products, why they buy, their sense of risk,” he says.
While Stouse agrees with Paine and Burke that COVID-19 “has ignited a massive measurement and analytics fire,” his view is that communicators are not measuring well.
“The communication industry is dead-last when it comes to the use of meaningful metrics and analytics to demonstrate impact and value,” he says. Part of this is because brand communicators lack “the competence or incentive to grab the bull by the horns.”
And it takes initiative. Too many communicators report to marketers, he says. Moreover, communicators lack access to data from other parts of the company that they’d need to deliver more meaningful analysis.
On the agency side, most firms measure, but “very few have made data and analytics a routine, non-negotiable part” of their culture, he says. When measurement-focused clients ask PR firms for data, they receive it, he says, but those are “rare exceptions.” About 2-3 percent of communicators are analyzing communication data with an eye toward aligning it with business outcomes, he says.
A simple way to take Stouse’s route, he says, is to begin with an hypothesis. Then you create a regression model and look at “what we’re doing, what other people [in the company] are doing who we don’t control, audience data and business data.” That’s how you understand what you should be doing and how it’s impacting your business, but it will tell you need to measure.
Stouse contends marketing, not communication, “has made strides in the right direction” on measurement. As a result, C-suites are “not asking communicators for data or analytics.” Instead they are “simply subordinating communication to the marketing department, and streamlining their communication investment.”
In Stouse’s view, communication’s continued lack of measurement progress is ironic since “nothing is as powerful with business audiences” as earned material. “Press, analysts, peer-to-peer, customers all exert a more powerful influence on decision-making than paid and owned, which dominate the top of the funnel, but whose influence diminishes greatly in the back-half of the customer journey,” he says.
Other Areas of Improvement
A cultural bias against being evaluated in terms of business and commercial value continues to exist in communication, Stouse contends.
In addition, there’s a lack of knowledge and understanding “about things mathematic.” PR pros, he says, still talk about how they hated math. Many chose marketing or communication, in part, because of the perception that they involved little understanding of math or business.
“The failure of the profession to adhere to a scientific standard of evaluation and proof is costing it dearly in terms of credibility,” Stouse believes.
He would like to see data and analytics as non-negotiables.
Similarly, Burke says, “I’d like to see fewer conversations around the need for measurement.” In addition, she agrees with Stouse that having more communicators analyze data with business objectives in mind is a worthy goal for 2021.
When it comes to measurement woes, Burke, Paine and Stouse agree on the need for AVEs (Ad Value Equivalents) to be no more. “Globally, AVEs are in decline,” Burke says, but even in regions where they’re still used, AVEs are eroding. “People are looking more at targeted reach, not just reach,” so they’re less useful. “AVEs are, and always were, a dishonest metric,” Stouse says. Value is not the same as cost, “yet that’s exactly the equivalence that the AVE seeks to draw.” An honest tertiary metric, he says, would be ACE, or Ad Cost Equivalency. “At least that is comparing apples and apples.”
For Paine, AVEs exist still because, “unfortunately, people who’ve been using them for 20 years don’t know any better.”
Racial and social biases were also highlighted this year. Those biases may seep into data curation, management and organization, Burke notes. Brands need to examine whether there’s bias baked into methodology and algorithms to aggregate data.
Communicators, Paine says, are recognizing the need to move away from impressions and clicks. One of the reasons is because of the rise of bots and spam. Boardrooms are asking, ‘How real are these numbers?’
And, as you might expect, communicators are measuring virtual events. What they’ve found, Paine says, is that they’re not less expensive to mount than physical events. Virtual events are, of course, less costly for participants, who save on travel. But has that increased attendance?
Business needs to analyze what sort of virtual event provides more qualified leads and gets an organization more engagement. In the end, is a virtual event an efficient way to make money? Fortunately, Paine sees people “looking at business outcomes more than they did previously…but they need to do that more.”