For as many years as most of us have been in PR, the debate about measuring ROI and coverage has been going on – a bit like the old Apple versus PC debate. Many different solutions have been put forward and adopted, ranging from advertising rate weighting for coverage, to business leads and simply the numbers of clippings generated.
Before the advent of mass online media, whichever method was used involved manually scanning publications and physically cutting out articles or mentions and putting together a manual report on a monthly, weekly or quarterly basis. And, while it’s easy to view such apparently outdated systems as quaint, or even comical, for a number of decades these were the best ways to measure coverage available. In fact, this methodology lingers on where publications only appear in print.
With the advent of online media in the last 15 years, however, the ability to scoop up coverage by search and filtering has not only made the job of coverage monitoring easier, it is also more accurate and can be tracked by both PR agencies and clients with specialist software such as Meltwater, their own bespoke systems or Google search. This has been accompanied by the increasing use of web analytics, whereby the ROI of press and other online coverage can be tracked in terms of overall value to the business, from website clicks to user profiles and a range of other metrics.
“Be careful if you think PR can now be labelled, boxed and measured as a commodity item and managed accordingly, as this will only restrict its true value to an organisation”
But does this mean the whole ROI debate about PR and coverage has now been solved by this new technology and the dominance of online media? While some larger global agencies like to present their clients with a ‘soup to nuts’ vision of an integrated communications and measurement package, encompassing press coverage, social media and other more subtle forms of measurement, the reality is somewhat more opaque. For example, did that RFQ a client’s sales team received in Italy last month come from the article that appeared in the US last week, the blog posted the week before in Italy, an analyst referral, or was it the last telemarketing call the company received? The uncomfortable truth is that there is still no sure-fire way to check this in most cases.
While more sophisticated and well-organised sales and marketing teams, especially in larger companies, will have people dedicated to getting this information from prospects, most customers don’t like an intrusive enquiry of this kind. So while some data and information that can be traced back to PR and marketing is available, most of the time it’s a very imprecise science. The smart move is to measure what you can, but discount what you cannot measure or define at your peril.
So, what does this mean for PR professionals and their clients? In our view it means the debate for measuring ROI continues, and it’s an illusion to think it’s over. Yes, new technologies have closed some of the gaps, and alternative models can be used. Some of these are compelling in their thesis, but the brutal reality of human buying behaviour, and the multiple touchpoints needed to close sales, means that in many ways we are where we have always been – PR helps influence the debate, gain credibility and brand recognition and, in some cases, directly leads to sales. But be careful if you think it can now be labelled, boxed and measured as a commodity item and managed accordingly, as this will only restrict its true value to an organisation.