The number of publications? Their reach? Number of new followers? PR agency clients often wonder how to measure their agency’s activities. In the article, we take a critical look at the most popular ways of measuring PR performance, suggest how to choose KPI appropriately to achieve favourable outcomes and how to avoid the pitfalls in your thinking.
It has become customary for PR agency clients to ask for reporting on the number of publications. Some also pay attention to the reach, quality or opinion-forming nature of the media that have mentioned the brand. However, operating solely on the number of publications or another selected KPI (key performance indicator) often leads clients – and agencies – astray. Even if there is only one publication, but in an opinion-forming title that has reached all friends, relatives and potential customers – this often does the whole job! It is therefore worth taking a closer look at the most popular indicators and not sticking rigidly to the ones we are used to.
The subject of measuring the effectiveness of PR agency activities can be approached in many ways. Is what is measured most often actually the most meaningful? And from the client’s perspective – what can be done to make the results pleasing?
Before we move on to the question of what and how to measure, it is worth pointing out that it is beneficial and even necessary to measure. Without measuring, we will not know whether the money spent on PR activities made any sense. And when this becomes unclear, neither the agency nor the client feels comfortable. And while many agencies would prefer to keep their clients convinced that ‘after all, image or reputation can’t be measured’, we all know very well that it can. It’s essential to sit down and define what each person means when discussing image or reputation.
If a client sets a seemingly specific goal- for example, securing an interview or cover story in a particular magazine, or aiming for 100 publications in 100 days – we need to dig deeper into the subject to understand the original goals behind the need, to which we can then match adequate KPIs. Because a cover story is more of a means to another, larger goal. Our task is to discern the core need. What truly drives the client? It may turn out that the desirable outcome can be achieved quite differently than what the client thinks.
The key to success is to create a strategy by selecting the tools and adjusting the scope to the goal that has been set. It is then possible to match the KPIs, which will later make it easier to measure progress towards the set goal.
When the aim is to build an image/reputation
In order to measure the effectiveness of activities aimed at building a specific image, we need to have a communication strategy, or at least a defined key message and key benefits with which we want to reach our target audience. Only then can we know if the goal was met.
When the aim is to build/increase brand awareness
Brand awareness among customers/consumers is a valuable resource and not every entity, even long-standing ones, is able to break through. But not every entity necessarily needs to be on everyone’s lips either. The important thing is that potential customers – who may inhabit a tiny niche – have a chance to come into contact with the brand, or better still, come into regular contact with it.
Brand recognition goes hand in hand with brand image and reputation. While working on the image, we also work on brand awareness. The more distinctive the image – the faster you can build brand awareness. Unaided awareness* usually takes a relatively long time to develop. Aided awareness** is somewhat shorter. In principle, brand awareness cannot be measured except through a survey on a sufficiently large and appropriately selected group of respondents.
When the aim is to support sales
Most PR agencies may not like this approach, they may plead that it is not their role to support sales. Somewhere deep down, however, everyone will agree that, more or less indirectly, the purpose of conducting communications activities is – through activities focused on image, reputation and education – to support sales. How do you check whether this is succeeding?
* Unaided brand awareness is the percentage of respondents from a given population who spontaneously named a brand in response to the question ‘Please name all the brands you know in category X (e.g. fintechs). It is worth measuring it once in a while – to observe changes. On the occasion of such a survey, it is also possible to check which of the brands in a given category is ‘top of mind’ – i.e. it will be mentioned first
** Aided brand awareness is a different measure of brand awareness than spontaneous brand awareness, as respondents do not have to recall brands in the category themselves, but merely tick the brands they know on a ready-made list.
When the goal is information/education
The need to inform and educate usually stems from a lack of sufficient knowledge among the audience of the brand’s interest about the product category or services. Particularly in the case of brand-new products or services, this element may even be the main task of the agency. Of course, an information or education campaign can also be a response to disinformation, but then we will have to choose other indicators (e.g. the proportion of correct or corrected information to fake news). Progress in educating the market is most easily measured by indicators that talk about exposure:
- number of publications in which the brand is mentioned
- number of hits on the website, including the number of organic hits
- number of followers on social media channels
- number of video views.
- number of co-occurrences of the category name and the brand name – if both the brand and the category of the product and service are relatively new, the brand often manages to appropriate the segment in question in accordance with the law of firsts. It is therefore sometimes possible to create a new category name and associate it with a particular brand for a long time.
- use of developed terms by the media – it is possible to check what terms are used, in which contexts appear.
When the aim is to change attitudes
Changing attitudes is perhaps the most difficult task an agency can face. And here again, to be able to measure whether attitudes are changing – it is useful to know before starting the activity what those attitudes are. So usually when a client asks for a change in attitudes – they are concerned with either image issues (‘they don’t value us’) or sales issues (‘they buy more products from our competitors’) or sentiment (‘they don’t like us’). Attitude change will therefore usually be measured by a combination of indicators used to measure progress in building or consolidating image, building recognition or supporting sales.
Cognitive errors explained
When discussing the tasks faced by PR agencies, it is worth recalling the difficult word ‘heuristics’. This cognitive error – described by Nobel laureate in economics Daniel Kahneman, among others – is really common. It is best explained by the simplest example: before an election, people rarely make the effort to check and compare election programmes and trace the candidates’ CVs in order to assess their credibility, rationality and feasibility of their promises on the basis of such information. Instead, they judge which candidate is more handsome. Or they pick out one particular promise that is attractive to them and make their choice on that basis alone. Instead of making a time-consuming and rather complex selection process – they make it easy for themselves by selecting one element that is easy to check. Is this intellectual laziness? Yes. Though perhaps also simplifying the complexity of phenomena. We are not in a position to decide all issues rationally.
Clients with a lower level of familiarity with communication practices often end up substituting accurate indicators with simpler alternatives that are easier for them to grasp. That is, instead of correctly defining a series of indicators (to actually measure processes – e.g. expanding the audience that knows about a particular service category) – they prefer to ask the agency “When will we be on the cover of Forbes?” or “When will I receive a television invitation?”. Another client will demand 10,000 new Facebook fans in a month, while another will expect a specific number of publications.
Everyone’s mind, including the client’s, likes to play tricks and take shortcuts. It seems reasonable to expect a specific number of publications or an interview by a specific editorial team. But it is a pretence. It is often precisely a typical example of heuristics. Defining the agency’s tasks in this way – rather than regularly checking on x dimensions to see if we are getting close to being considered to be meeting targets – is obviously tempting.
A common way of reporting – the number of publications – seems an elegant, because measurable indicator. It’s easy to say if someone has managed to achieve significant outcomes. But does this number actually bring us closer to that more primary goal that the client actually cares about, even though they may not have articulated it? Let’s be insightful. Let’s be assertive. It really is worth spending the time and energy to get the metrics right at the start of the relationship. Especially when the client not only insists on the number of publications as the primary KPI , but also demonstrates a misunderstanding of the PR agency’s methods by demanding a guarantee of a specific number.
A final word – our approach to press release dispatches
We treat each press release dispatch very individually – we review the media and select them according to the topic/issue, but also the individual needs of the client. Additionally, we send releases to editorial offices that haven’t featured our content for months. This approach is due to the uncertainty of which outlets will pick up the topic. So we send extensively because “who knows?” – maybe we’ll hit a moment when someone is working on a text to which our content will fit. We don’t necessarily hope for (quick) publication; often we don’t even want to inspire a journalist to write their own text. What we are counting on is how and in what context we position the brand. What’s more, we know more than a few journalists who simply want to be kept up to date. We are aware that they won’t publish over 90% of the material we send them. However, through our efforts, they gain insights into our clients’ developments.
If the subject interests you, we also recommend a text on why no self-respecting PR agency will allow itself to include a guarantee of a certain number of publications in its contract!