Focus on what’s vital, not what’s easily visible

Lesson from losing political campaigns: too many businesses use metrics that are just easy to find -- if they have metrics at all.

Focus on what’s vital, not what’s easily visible

Joe Biden, the Trump campaign wants you to know, has never had a boat parade. 

Each weekend for the past month, flotillas of President Donald Trump’s supporters have organized to show their support for the president’s reelection. After the very first, the Trump campaign took great pleasure in pointing out that, nautically speaking, the presumptive Democratic Party nominee’s supporters are nowhere to be found. 

Perhaps not nowhere. Look at any respected national poll and Biden’s support looks, well, buoyant. According to the latest FiveThirtyEight average, the former vice president has a healthy eight-point lead. 

Could it be that boat parades aren’t a reflective measure of the electorate? 

The Trump campaign’s focus on the parades is a self-evidently silly and desperate attempt to change the narrative, but it reflects a mistake common in political analysis. We focus on what’s visible, not what’s vital. 

Biden has been disproving this kind of analysis from the beginning of his campaign. Early on, his campaign was faulted for not having supporters with an online presence, reflecting, in the minds of many, the shallowness of his support. Today, Biden is judged as falling short on supporter enthusiasm. And yet somehow, a lack of Twitter presence didn’t keep Biden from wrapping up the nomination earlier than any contested primary in decades. Whether the lack of enthusiasm sinks a campaign that’s now up near double-digits remains to be seen. 

There is an important lesson here for corporate communicators about measurement. The easiest-to-access metrics aren’t always the ones that correlate with success. After 15 years working at the intersection of political and corporate research and communications, I’m still surprised at how few companies have established agreed-upon metrics for judging the success of their reputation campaigns, or even who those campaigns are for. With a complex tangle of targets that include the political community and regulators, media, consumers and shareholders, many companies lump them all together into a nebulous stakeholder definition and call it a day. As for the metrics, many rely on syndicated reputation rankings or tracking polls with standardized questions. Or, of course, social media metrics tracking how many people are tweeting about you and what they’re saying. 

To be sure, political campaigns have it easier. We know when the race is over: Election Day. We know what success demands: 50% plus one vote. And we have an easy way of measuring our progress, namely, the horserace question that is in every political poll. 

There’s no Election Day in the corporate space, no clear win and no uniform way to measure your progress. Favorability? Trust? Purchase intent? The choice comes down to how each organization sees the importance and value of communications and reputation. Each company could, and probably should, have its own definition and own way of measuring its success. Moreover, they should identify audiences that matter to them and resist relying on generalized definitions of “elites” or “influencers,” whoever they’re supposed to be. 

This is not to say that social media metrics are irrelevant. Far from it. With approximately a quarter of all verified accounts held by journalists, the Twitter conversation shapes coverage. And that’s the point. It’s an input, though only one input, into the communications ecosystem. Measuring it should tell you about the filter through which you’re communicating, but it isn’t a measure of the outcome, and it shouldn’t be mistaken for it, no matter how easy it is to measure or how visible it is. It’s one of the reasons politics often trains great communication leaders, it teaches us to separate smoke from the fire and not get distracted when a parade of boats passes by. 

Danny Franklin is a partner at Bully Pulpit Interactive. 

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