Midsize firms wrestle with measurement tool needs

It's not unusual for large PR firms to develop proprietary measurement tools.

It's not unusual for large PR firms to develop proprietary measurement tools.

Promising tailored, tangible results and ROI, agencies with the resources and commitment to design such tools can be especially attractive to both current and potential clients - and that can help drive agency profitability.

But at smaller firms, opinions vary sharply on whether building such an in-house system is worth the investment. At the Merritt Group, a midsize firm based in Reston, VA, research and measurement are considered important enough to have their own dedicated division. Thea Roberti, who leads the San Francisco-based practice, formerly worked for automated-measurement service Biz360 and has heard all sides of the measurement-tool issue. But Merritt selected a hands-on, qualitative measurement style - one that often involves actually reading and scrutinizing hundreds of news stories each month, for each client - because the firm believes clients will pay more for, and receive more benefit from, human analysis of campaign results.

"One client's account [on an automated-measurement system] is going to be anywhere between $20,000 up to $500,000 a year," says Roberti. "You hire one body to do the kind of research I'm doing... that one body can service multiple clients and also provide new-business support."

For Minneapolis-based LaBreche, a simple need to implement solid measurement techniques almost a decade ago led the agency to create its own proprietary system. "There really weren't a lot of measurement services out there," says CEO Beth LaBreche. "And we needed to mechanize our reporting from a results and an ROI perspective so that it was consistent across the agency."

LaBreche acknowledges that the development process was costly, mostly in terms of labor. But it was necessary at the time, she says, and received good feedback from clients. Today, though, the relatively small agency sometimes finds it hard to nail down a properly scaled measurement tool for its clients of widely varying sizes.

"We've got this black hole of our own system [sometimes not] being relevant anymore," LaBreche explains.

There are, of course, PR pros who believe that proprietary measurement systems for small firms are unnecessary.

One is Ann Norman, managing partner of LA-based Norman Communications. Instead of highly technical and labor-intensive measurement techniques, Norman asks clients how they would define campaign success. Media coverage, Web traffic, sales increases, or stock price movements are among the most common answers. Then, Norman says, she uses the client's preferred metric to measure the campaign's effectiveness - even if that metric can only loosely be tied to PR efforts.

The virtues of Norman's system, she says, are its simplicity and cost savings, for firm and clients alike.

"I do [this so] they can't come back to me three months down the road and say, 'We don't understand; we can't measure this,'" she says. "If they told me how they want it measured, that is effective because it came from them."

Key points:

Often appealing to potential clients, proprietary measurement tools can help drive firm profitability

Investing in additional in-house staff can be more cost-effective than spending money on outside measurement firms

Whatever tools are used, clients need to understand the metrics used to measure campaign success

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