In terms of metrics, some PR pros' math just doesn't add up

Hearing PR pros talk about measurement in a Web 2.0 world makes me belatedly appreciate all of those math teachers who mandated students show their work - and not just the answers.

Hearing PR pros talk about measurement in a Web 2.0 world makes me belatedly appreciate all of those math teachers who mandated students show their work - and not just the answers.

It wasn't always like this. The PR business used simple arithmetic; you got your impressions, perhaps subtracted negative mentions, and, voila, received either praise or scorn from a client.

But today's participatory media landscape is fraught with unverified links, flawed measurement, and questionable assumptions. Today's PR world is a complex algebraic problem where, after much work, you find yourself with a solution of 1=2. And some are making assumptions while withholding evidence as to how they reached that conclusion.

Despite the complexity of the market, some PR pros can be guilty of resorting to facile assertions. This was apparent when Google released Google Trends in early May, a simple application that allows anyone to compare two searches for different items. It's a service that currently provides little more than fun and games, but it does not come remotely close to shedding light on brand propositions.

But that didn't stop marketers in the blogosphere from using it and then declaring it as a barometer of brand popularity. Not quite. Wouldn't users be more likely to know the direct URL for the most popular item and, thus, not have to search for it? That's only the first question I have.

Max Kalehoff, VP of marketing for monitoring firm Nielsen BuzzMetrics, took the measured approach, writing on his blog, "While Google Trends is very, very, very far from being a serious market research tool, it is free, accessible, and will give many people a better idea why search data are so important to mine."

And no, I don't think he's understating Google Trends because it's technically the competition.

No one thinks that doing PR in the 21st century is going to be easy. But that complexity is only complicated by misleading assumptions based on Beta metrics.

Google itself realized the limitations (currently, at least) of its Trends service, writing in its FAQ, "It may contain inaccuracies for a number of reasons, including data-sampling issues and a variety of approximations that Trends makes use of. We hope you find this service interesting and entertaining, but you probably don't want to write your PhD dissertation based on this information."

While no one is writing a dissertation, corporations are increasingly inviting PR bloggers in to tell them about online consumer attitudes about their products. I pity the PR team that has to deal with a hyped-up executive who wants a campaign based on Google Trends.

A sluggish brand can cause many effects, including a poor Google Trends score. If anyone comes to your office and suggests the opposite - that your brand is sluggish because people aren't searching online - be sure to ask to see that person's math.

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