In Douglas Adams' book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a computer program running for seven-and-a-half million years finally determines the answer to "life, the universe, and everything" is 42. This not-helpful answer requires a whole new program to determine what the question was in the first place.
Such is the potential problem, on a smaller scale, for PR agencies that must establish viable metrics for measuring client programs. APCO Insight president Mark Benson notes that one traditional metric for measuring client communications is "favorability" - a term without a clear definition.
"I don't think it tells very much," he explains. "Some agencies have fixed models for measuring reputation that can be compared to all companies, but I don't think those are very useful because measuring the reputation of Disney is going to be very different than measuring the reputation of Philip Morris."
Benson and other research experts note that the metrics for evaluating client programs range from the traditional measurement of media impressions of print, TV, or online outlets, to the ever more sophisticated use of focus groups and polling, both in person and online. But coming up with the right questions to ask about clients means understanding both what the clients' goals are and who makes up the audience.
"I think agencies are most effective when they look at a client's communications goals up front and then determine what kind of metrics are appropriate [for use] to measure against those objectives," says Barbara Coons, SVP of the Edelman-owned research firm StrategyOne.
"Too often, PR pros try to assign metrics after the fact, to measure in terms of what's favorable to [their efforts]."
Sometimes target audiences are not immediately apparent. Doug Usher, SVP and director of research and polling at Widmeyer Communications, says the ability to track and target audiences online based on behavior, as opposed to socio-economic groupings (such as "soccer moms"), allows campaigns to identify new audiences.
"You might think you don't want to market video games to people over 65, because that might only be 2% to 3% of the total audience," Usher says. "But give me a 65-year-old who's on Google searching for video games; I'd want to market to [that person]."
Once the objectives and audiences are identified, metrics fall into place rather easily, which in turn can serve as the foundation for creating communications strategy and in altering an after-programs launch, notes Adam Burns, VP of strategic planning and research at Porter Novelli.
"If you're mid-campaign, for instance, you might get those numbers back and see changes off the baseline numbers showing that, 'Oh, we're doing well with men, but not with younger women,'" he says.
"You look at that data and think, 'What [must we] do to make sure we're reaching more people?'"
Metrics for measuring reputation vary widely from client to client
Surveys and statistical analysis increasingly make up measurement practices instead of clip counts
Metrics serve as a foundation for communications strategy and also provide benchmarks of success