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How do you measure ROI in PR. And should you even try?

Linsey Fryatt

ROI. Return on Investment.

A measurement absolutely necessary in business to compare costs on decisions and prioritise the most effective ones. A process especially crucial for startups, often both counting every cent and searching for the best ways to maximise growth.

A term also guaranteed to send shivers up the spine of many a PR professional. It may as well stand for Really Obtuse Increments.

I’ve lost count of the times I have been asked to predict a potential client’s ROI on a proposed PR spend, and I have grappled with the best ways to answer before getting tangled in an undergrowth of marketing speak of “brand awareness”, “added value” “traction” etc...

Let me generalise wildly – I’m a creative, subjective, intuitive individual, as many journalists and communicators are. I am dealing with startup founders, mostly in the technical realm. They’re analytical, logical, objective. They want a straight answer.

So is there a straight answer? And if not, is there at least a satisfactory way to address the issues raised by the question “What’s my ROI likely to be?”

Modes of measurement

In a great Analytics Webinar series on how to best present analytics for the PR industry, Paul Hender, Head of Insights and Analysis at Gorkana, drew on information from a recent AMEC [Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communication] survey that reported that 67 per cent of members reported being asked by clients on the direct business benefits of communication activity. And yet only 28 per cent actually reported on these outcomes.

“You’re talking about the conscious and often unconscious minds of millions of people, exposed to coverage,” says Hender. “Building evidence between someone seeing coverage and then making a decision is hard... it’s blurry.”

Output versus outcome

The well-worn PR “value” measurement has been AVEx3 – measuring PR “column inches” and multiplying the equivalent cost of advertising space by three. But in times of destandardised advertising, native content and blurred sponsorship deals, this approach is even more flawed than it was to begin with.

The Barcelona Principles helped to re-evaluate this – and stressed that PR activity should be measured on outcome rather than output. For example, a client scoring a profile in Forbes, a mention in a larger article in the Wall Street Journal and a product review in Cnet. From an output perspective, great. But what of the outcomes? We’re still back to the prickly subject of how to accurately measure and report these.

Statistics are our friend. Our sketchy, unreliable friend

Hender whisked me back to Maths class in a musty 1980s Scottish classroom (a place where none but the very specialised fetishist would want to be) with talks of correlation, coefficients and causations – but applying them to real-life PR examples started to clear the fog.

He demonstrated ways in which media coverage can be plotted against specific business goals such as raising website traffic or visitors to your store can start to yield meaningful correlation.

But before we start to oversimplify, we also need to construct a statistical model that allows for inclusion of other marketing or brand activity – intuition tells us that it’s the sum of a marketing campaign and a PR campaign that lead to changed consumer activity. Statistics can help to break this down for a more detailed assessment.

But it’s still an unclear and difficult process, with many factors that can cloud meaningful results. As Hender says, “The thing about a Holy Grail is that it’s just that – something we can aspire to.”

Here’s some ways that I think we can at least begin to address the prickly ROI question next time you’re asked. Which you will be, believe me...

• Set specific goals
Ask what specific business goals your client has – what are the parameters that need tracked? Do they seem realistic?

• Be armed with advice
Go in prepared with knowledge and advice for your clients. Demonstrate that you understand their concerns and have constructive ways for them to enlighten themselves as to how to measure PR success.

• Suggest KPIs
Suggest output goals that you are comfortable with. Then there is a positive number from which to then tackle outcomes

• Talk analytics
Decide who is responsible for measuring any outcomes. Ask what analytics they have in place to track any business numbers, and if PR activity can be plugged into them. If not, then ask for an agreement for disclosure of data so that you can use in your own analytics

• Plug in other activities
Remember to include other activities – social media campaigns, partnership marketing, media coverage etc into any analysis

• Create case studies
Ask if we can work closely with them to create a case study. You’re a PR, you understand the importance of “Show, Don’t Tell”. And the more we can demonstrate a correlation between PR and ROIs the more convinced.

• Show your “intangible” value
Reinforce the less quantifiable parts of what you do.

I’ll let Ben Camm-Jones, Clarity PR’s Director of Content have the last word (he likes that).

“A good agency should be a consultancy, should help you make contacts (and not just in the media), help with a wider marketing plan, act as a mentor and so on. It should recognise your business needs beyond pure communications and advise you accordingly.

“Return can be tricky to measure - but a PR agency should be judged by how much overall value it adds to your business too.”

Some Further Reading:



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Photo credit: Edward Conde via Photopin (cc)