This, and other takeaways and tips from the PR News Measurement Conference

The W2O Group and I were grateful to have been asked to speak at  The PR News Measurement Conference recently. PR News brought together speakers, sponsors, and attendees representing a cross section of private and public-sector communicators, agency, academia, and research foundations for two full days of programming.  I spoke about the importance of influencers (identifying, understanding, engaging, tracking).  I also had the honor of helping to close the conference with a Baker’s Half Dozen observations, key moments, notable quotes and emerging themes.   I’ve adapted those here and added four more to round out a list of top ten takeaways and tips.

Top Ten Takeaways & Tips

  1.  Make management a part of your measurement journey.  If there was a single most frequently recurring theme at the conference it was to do with senior leadership into whom communicators report.  Concern over what senior management expects, understands, aligns with and supports.  Panelists who raised this (and attendees that asked about it) all described themselves as being on varying stages of a journey.   Panelists and attendees both described a need to evolve their measurement to position communications less as a cost center and more as generating value for their organizations.  Communications is under increasing pressure to use data (the lingua franca of senior leadership) and scorecards (the visual vernacular of senior leadership) to help tell a c-suite, boardroom-ready story of progress.  In this context, measurement is best seen–speakers suggested–as improvement not justification.  And to improve, what we as communicators put in front of leadership has got to surface insights that lead to conversations about strategic and tactical adjustments.  Key to this, however, is support from management on and alignment with a rigorous approach to measurement that is mindful of objectives, regards a framework, includes multiple meaningful metrics and leads to a culture that is open to acting on the results.  It’s a journey W2O is helping clients with.
  2.   Start somewhere. What’s that saying about a thousand-mile journey beginning with a single step?  One delegate noted that the conference was like a giant support group with those further along on their journey comforting those not quite so advanced.  The tip here is to start somewhere, start small and evolve over time.  Test and fail.  Fail fast.  One panelist encouraged delegates to “pilot the seemingly outlandish and impossible.”  W2O client Aetna has been on a journey to get to an ever-more data-driven communications operation.  Kieran Fagan, VP of Communications at Aetna presented a case study ( How Aetna is Transforming its Communications with Consistent Metrics  ) that outlined a six-step plan.   1)  State your intent about shifting toward being data-driven.  2)  Answer the big question:  so what?  3)  Count what you can but don’t overdo it.  4)  Tie it to your story; your narrative themes.  5) Bring it to the business.  Socialize it.  Solicit feedback.  Acclimate to it.  6) Don’t run a victory lap as measurement is an ever-evolving journey.
  3. Start with the start in mind. It’s corny, but I like to say that KPIs are easy as pie if we’ve done the harder upfront work of clearly identifying objectives.  I was once a PRSA awards judge and noticed so many plans confused goals, objectives, strategies and tactics into one big aspirational slide.  That confuses measurement.  Clarity helps us measure by objective not tactic, nor channel.  It helps us put the audience at the center.  KPIs, scorecards, dashboards, and reports are far easier to design with that clarity.  A former colleague coined a hashtag that’s fitting here:  #YOMO:  year of the measurable objective.
  4. Embrace a framework. An audience, funnel, journey, path to (purchase or some other appropriate action and advocacy) can be enormously helpful in organizing objectives, KPIs, methods and data sources as part of a measurement framework.  And it helps PR align with colleagues in marketing.  There are many such funnels out there.  Some from the measurement-centric industry associations.  Many variations of which, conference speakers presented.  I was encouraged so many presented at this conference; many more that I’ve seen in similar conferences past.  At W2O we use a funnel (Awareness > inter-Action > Attitude > Action > Advocacy) to help challenge ourselves and clients to think about outcomes as much as output.  A framework encourages us to think more broadly and avoid thinking about a specific touchpoint or the effect of a single post.  Despite Kylie Jenner’s ability to drive down Snap’s stock value by $1.3 billion in a single day with a single Tweet, we’ve got to be thinking bigger.  The long-standing preference for measuring every individual touchpoint at a user-level misses the forest for the trees.
  5. Stop looking for a single, killer, ROI metric.  Nope, no thanks. Don’t do it.  It’s a race to the bottom.  It limits our thinking before we’ve even started.  Rather, let’s think about multiple metrics in each tier of the funnel, journey, path.  Let’s think about demonstrating multiple tiers of shift, progress, and value using multiple, increasingly sophisticated methods to do so.  Impressions were frequently cited at the conference as the most commonly used but most problematic and least popular metric.  One metric on a slide at the conference caused a bit of a stir and spurred a tweet from Katie Paine that sums up the challenge nicely: “for the record, re: impressions, there are 7.4 billion people on Earth. Less than half have computers, access to the internet or electricity. Even fewer care about your brand/message/product. So when you say you’ve reached 10 billion people, you have lost all credibility.”  No question the metric has a credibility problem.  I think impressions do have a place in measurement with two very important caveats:  1) that we look it as one among multiple metrics, not THE metric, and 2) that we look at impressions among very specific target audiences we want to reach (via audience/stakeholder/influencer-specific listening panels) and that we look at impressions for only those media outlets (and influencers) that matter to those audiences and that generating sharing.
  6. Embrace ever-more audience specificity. While there were occasional hints of this at the conference, I expected to hear and see more focus on audiences.  Delegates seemed, in principle, to recognize that the days of “spray and pray” are over and that we’re in a new era of focusing on who matters, who matters to them, what matters, how and where it will matter.  We’re seeing an acute shift from a coverage model to a community and conversation model.  But there seems to be a gap between acknowledging the challenge and addressing it.
  7. It’s time to face the fear. There were several moments and remarks at the conference that surfaced challenges with peers in marketing.  I think a certain amount of tension between the two can be healthy and productive.  I was a touch surprised not to hear more calls from either panelist or delegates to face the fear of marketing, fix the friction, embrace integrated marketing communications (as graduate degree programs did 20 years ago) and be comfortable in their new cross-PESO (paid, earned, shared, owned) context.  There was a surprising sense of us vs. them or otherness in the room.  It’s time to break through that.  It’s where the industry has been headed and where W2O has been headed for some time.
  8. Skill sets for the next generation communicator are shifting:  It comes up at every measurement conference typically as someone is asking one of the first questions of the day.  “I went into PR because I hate math.”  Those days are gone, in my view.  I’m not about to tell my six-year-old daughter that it’s OK for her not to worry about math if she wants a career in PR.  Major organizations are hiring staff into corporate communications departments at the director (or higher) level with a mandate of driving more data-driven communications.  They are auditing then augmenting headcount, staff skills, tools, methods, output and processes.  This theme came up several times throughout the conference with a call for hiring more resources with blended backgrounds, curiosity, critical thinking, a willingness to test hypotheses, a basic grounding in research methods, some knowledge of business intelligence tools.  We’re practicing that preach here @ W2O.  Out of our 600 agency staff, more than 100 are analysts, some of whom are account – analytics hybrids.
  9. Get to know your in-house market research folks. Some PR practitioners in large organizations haven’t met their own internal market research groups.  Agencies often play the role of matchmaker in suggesting that connection.  It’s commonly the case when you get these groups together and talk about wants, needs, challenges, and ideas that good things happen.  I didn’t hear as much on this as I’d have hoped at the conference and it is so crucial.  One example:  it’s important to align one’s media content analysis with the brand and reputation tracking studies that most organizations have running.
  10. Measurement isn’t a cost.  It’s cost-saver.  This, too, comes up at every conference.  The idea that a client can’t afford measurement.  And that if they did some measurement, it would mean less tactical programming.  Fewer releases, events, pitches, opeds, whitepapers, influencers engaged and so on.  That’s a justification not an optimization argument.  Most who do measurement for a living have evidence that suggests that measurement helps fine tune execution and that there’s ample room for both measurement and smarter, data-driven execution.  I always counter the “I can’t afford this” with “can you afford not to?”  Measurement helps keep and grow headcount, it grows budget and it helps communicators so no to tactical ideas that data shows isn’t optimal.

I’ll leave off where we began and that is to suggest, that, like happiness, measurement is a journey not destination. Are you on a measurement journey?  Where are you on your journey? We’d love to hear from you.