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 Apple versus PC debate. Many different solutions have been put forward and adopted in that time, ranging from advertising rate weighting for coverage to business leads to simply the numbers of clippings generated.
Before the advent of mass online media, whichever method was used involved manually scanning publications, physically cutting out articles or mentions and putting together a report on a monthly, weekly or quarterly basis. And, while it is easy to look at such apparently antiquated systems as quaint, or even comical, for a number of decades this was the best way of measuring coverage available. In fact, this methodology lingers on where publications only appear in hardcopy.
With the advent of online media in the last 15 years, the ability to scoop up coverage by search and filtering has made the job of coverage monitoring easier and more accurate. Coverage can be tracked by both PR agencies and clients with specialist software such as Meltwater, their own bespoke systems or a simple Google search. This has been accompanied by the increase in 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 use profiles and a range of other metrics.
But does this mean that the whole ROI debate about PR and coverage has now been solved by this new technology and 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 that a client’s sales team received in Italy come from the article that appeared in the US last week, the blog posting the week before in Italy, an analyst referral or the last telemarketing call that company received?
The uncomfortable truth is that there is still no sure-fire way to check in all cases, or indeed the majority. Yes, more sophisticated and well-organized sales and marketing teams, especially in larger companies, will have people dedicated to getting this information from prospects, customers or leads, but most customers still don’t like an intrusive enquiry of this kind. So while some indications or information are available for leads and sales that can be traced back to PR and marketing, most still cannot.
So what does this mean for PR professionals and their clients? In our view, it means that the debate for measuring ROI continues, and it is an illusion to think the debate is over. Yes, new technologies have closed some of the gaps and alternative models can be used — some compelling in their thesis — but the brutal reality of human buying behavior and the multiple touch-points 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, it can lead directly to sales. But be careful if you think PR can now be labeled, boxed and measured as a commodity item and managed accordingly, as this will only restrict it’s true value to an organization.