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By Jude Calvillo, Principal Counsel
(revived -and updated- from a never before published article)
Month after month, in boardrooms around the globe, CFOs and Marketing Directors seem to conspire against their PR professionals in demanding to know what sort of bang for the buck they’re getting from their PR investments. These MBA-minded individuals are looking for precise measures of what’s working and not working to promote public awareness and perceptions of their brands, but about the best that PR professionals have been able offer their critics is goal-oriented generalizations. That’s because, as many smug marketing execs already know, the methods to measure PR efficacy, tactically and strategically, have been much too costly to make them worth the hassle.
Fear not, PR pro. Help is on its way,…and that Marketing Director sitting across from you might just have to buy you lunch (daily!) when all is said and done. That’s because automated tools for measuring public awareness and perceptions are on the horizon, and they’re many fold cheaper than what’s currently available.
Currently, the tools for accurately measuring perceptions about an organization or its offerings are quite resource-intensive, and that’s because these are based on highly scientific psychological research methods. For example, at the most basic level (if you want to call this stuff “basic”), researchers can employ a survey to directly measure audience’s attitudes about, and attachment to, a concept, including the following measures:
- Attitude Valence: how positive or negative an individual feels about a concept
- Attitude Strength: just how much they even care about that concept (good measure to consider when delineating publics)
- Attachment: to what degree an individual identifies with a concept and how often this concept comes to their mind (great measure for predicting behavior)
Such a method requires great attention to measuring the right psychological constructs. It obviously also incurs considerable costs in collecting data, limiting bias and evaluating results, all of which require the services of some sort of quantitative social scientist.
When people find it hard or are reluctant to express their truthful opinions, researchers can alternatively employ a computer-administered experimental method called an Implicit Association Test (or “IAT”), which can uncover people’s latent attitudes towards particular concepts. In this method, individuals are simultaneously presented with the visual representation of the concept in question and a valenced word (e.g., “good” or “bad”), the latter of which they have to categorize according to a pre-defined rule. The more consistent the word is with their perceptions of the concept in question, the faster the individuals can process the association and the faster they can perform the categorization task. As one might quickly figure, this sort of research requires computer access and very specialized software. Again, we’re talking considerable costs, many thousands of dollars most clients or marketing departments aren’t willing to absorb.
Now, thanks to recent advances in web-based content analysis, measuring public perceptions has become many fold cheaper and, while this new breed of metrics tools are nowhere near as precise as controlled academic research, they’re well worth the effort.
First and foremost, a tool that is, technically speaking, already here is semantic analysis. Semantic analysis is the semantic evaluation of content to identify its tone and semantic patterns. The way this works on the web is that a semantic analysis tool like, for example, Twitrratr.com, looks at a target medium -in this case, Twitter- and applies semantic analysis upon its hot topic conversations. For the time being, Twitrratr is limited to determining whether tweets are generally positive, generally negative, or generally neutral. This is nowhere near the precision or nuance of the aforementioned research tools (I did say this stuff is “on the horizon” :)). Nonetheless, this sort of measure is important in that PR professionals can get practically immediate feedback on their tactics and can then compare their measures over time. This would tell the PR professional what’s working to improve perceptions and, to some extent, by what degree. Look for semantic analysis tools to get progressively reliable (they’re already at a respectable 80%), accurate, and nuanced in the coming year(s).
Another important tool, one that is constantly evolving, is Google Trends. Again, I say it’s “on the horizon,” because it signals a new breed of tools with lots of potential, but we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg thus far. Whereas semantic analysis focuses on evaluating content, Google Trends analyzes search trends…very deeply. More importantly, however, it deeply analyzes search trends outside one’s own server/systems. One could employ an analytics package (e.g. Google Analytics), but they cannot get insight on traffic that does not actually hit their website. Hence, Google Trends gives one that capability and then some. It can go so far as to graph search trends related to the term you seek, tell you regional information, languages, etc, etc. The point is, it’s extraordinarily useful if you know what you’re looking for. For example, if you have just held a press conference and want to see if people have recently searched for positive brand concepts, or messaging from that conference, Google Trends will tell you if the search data correlates with the timing of that event. I.E., it’s great for tying offline PR to online exposure.
I can see where some of us might fear these tools, the notion that our PR skills could be discounted to a matter of ROI, but we really shouldn’t sweat it. Instead, we should embrace these tools, because they will ultimately reveal that the PR professional’s skill-set is well worth the money. In due time, we will be able to separate how well the tactics of a comprehensive strategic communications campaign perform from how well the more direct tactics of marketing perform. In the divide between these functional approaches, we will find the value of being well versed in strategic communications theory, something rarely taught in business schools. Moreover, in the way of execution, comparing apples to apples, should marketing technocrats attempt to evaluate their efficacy in writing or speaking persuasively, they will likely come up short against the silky-soft skills of a seasoned PR professional.
The implications for the PR industry are far reaching. First, there will naturally be a revolt. Many PR professionals, particularly the older, less tech-savvy set, will attempt to distance themselves from these tools. I would like to be the first to inform the elder PR guru that rigorous, ethical use of these tools would likely validate their guru status. Bear in mind, these tools would finally bring to light your strategic experience and way with words or way with the press. Sadly, one will note that some PR professionals will have a hard time justifying their pay to clients whose marketing departments subscribe to these metrics and these metrics only. This could happen because their tactics might simply not result in data that can be measured via the tools available at the time. For example, with semantic analysis, tactics meant to perpetuate brand equity might not make any noise in the blogosphere or twitscape, especially if the concepts being promoted are, to borrow a marketing term, disgusting (nobody earnestly wants to publicize or discuss their consumption; e.g. urinary tract ointments). In cases like these, the PR professional should be sure to remind their best buds in marketing as to the futility of measuring some things, like brand equity, as a product of expression.
Nonetheless, for the vast majority of PR professionals, the impending metrics revolution means that they will soon be able to quantitatively justify their pay, their prestige, and their place at tables often reserved for technocrats. PR professionals shouldn’t just invite their technocratic peers to measure them with this new breed of tools; they should dare them to do so. At the end of the day, CFOs might just have to reserve another spot at their pretty glass tables while Marketing Directors make daily reservations for two at 5-star cafes.