Slaying the monster measurement myth of impressions

How agencies are helping clients break the habit with KPIs more closely tied to business results.

Slaying the monster measurement myth of impressions

Impressions? Forget about it. 

Long gone are the days when impressions were seen as an adequate measurement to solely determine the success or failure of a PR campaign.

What are measurement experts using instead? At agencies, that process starts with getting on the same page as the client upfront, sometimes even gently coaxing them away from the desire to rely on impressions.

“For a long time, super broad, very large, mostly unverified impression numbers have fueled PR measurement,” says Mike Moschella, director of DKC Analytics. “Sometimes this industry-standard reporting is laughably inaccurate. In 2021, executives are much less likely to keep your retainer if you send an obviously wrong report than they were just a decade ago.”

Experts agree that overly broad metrics aren’t very useful. For one, they base results on “data not tied to an outcome,” notes Chad Latz, chief innovation officer and global president of digital at BCW. “How valuable are a billion impressions if true reach and business results can’t be attributed?”

Geeta Patel, head of analytics at Golin North America, adds that some companies have not fully distanced themselves from impressions, yet they are asking for other metrics and insights that tell a more holistic communications story.

“We really push our clients to use the customer journey as their guide for setting objectives and measuring, and that allows us to generate results impactful of their business so that we can focus on setting KPIs that directly show how we reached our objectives,” she adds.

Ketchum also nudges clients away from impressions and volume. Mary Elizabeth Germaine, partner and MD of Ketchum Analytics, explains that the firm encourages clients to focus on “more meaningful” metrics to showcase business impact.

“With advances in data, we now have the ability to prove the ROI of comms in ways that marketing has for years,” she says. “We need to raise the bar on how and what we measure.”

Nate Jaffee, head of strategy at Praytell, breaks down potential clients into three buckets: those who “need no correcting;” those who “require education” and those looking for collaboration. The first group, he says, are “the ones that have internal expertise and have invested time not only identifying the right measurements but creating internal alignment with brand and business goals.”

Clients that need an education have either failed to modernize or continue to rely on KPIs based on impressions. Others come from a digital or performance background and want to use measurements more suitable for a paid acquisition campaign. 

Praytell most commonly sees clients in the third group, noting that its starting point is “to work together on a really thoughtful approach that incorporates art and science,” a conversation that happens before they even broach the subject of goals and metrics.

How do experts determine what metrics are most applicable to a client initiative? A customized intake form urges clients to spend time developing more robust thinking, Moschella notes. “In particular, establishing the competitor baseline and understanding demographic testing, target publications and company philosophy all help us find a Goldilocks solution,” he says.

In theory, the creation of the Barcelona Principles in 2010 should have propelled agencies and clients on a journey toward better measurement. Many experts say the principles should not be done away with completely, but think their usefulness has diminished over time.

In that camp, Moschella argues that they are “a good reminder to include the ‘why’ with the ‘what,’” while Germaine says that they “can act as a checklist for the key elements of a measurement plan.”

“[They] provide guardrails and frameworks. These support best practices and global standards in place,” says Natasha Kennedy, global MD of FleishmanHillard’s True Global Intelligence. “They aren’t about tools, as those are constantly evolving, but about the support of ‘no one size fits all’ measurement principles.”

Golin, Patel explains, says they are a reminder that “good, honest measurement is valuable and should not be an afterthought.” However, the firm has developed its own measurement KPIs that incorporate some of the Barcelona Principles.

“Our goal is to ensure our clients know that strategic, effective measurement shows how communications impacts the business, provides insights to improve future results and ultimately how it inspires communications professionals to think differently,” she says.

Jaffee and Latz are less complimentary about the Barcelona Principles. 

“The specifics are increasingly less useful with each update,” Jaffee says. “I’d strongly advocate on incorporating them to anyone who hasn’t previously, but the current formula feels like a new coat of paint that doesn’t have the same impact as when they were first introduced.” 

Latz emphasizes that with so many changes in the industry since the principles were introduced, they are “outdated” and “should be revisited.” 

What is more useful? Each agency takes its own approach, working closely with the client to ensure they’re using the most appropriate metrics. 

Moschella argues that PR gauges should focus more on digital attribution models rather than traditional PR measurement as the former are “much better connected ‘bottom of the funnel’ objectives: did the person buy the product, join the email list, attend the events? PR measurement tends to focus on ‘top of the funnel’ objectives: readership volume and awareness.” 

Broad changes in the industry are also compelling PR teams to take sales and marketing measurement objectives into consideration. 

Fleishman calls for relying on metrics “that will be closely aligned to outcomes, budgets and returns, always with the North Star of what metric will show success based on the campaign’s objectives,” Kennedy says. The agency employs measurements to determine who has been exposed to the content, whether it be earned, owned or social through outcomes like engagement, advocacy and sales.

For BCW, early feedback is key. The WPP agency asks clients to start by naming the most valuable outcomes for its brand and its business,” Latz says. This helps the firm determine what should be measured and how to formulate their KPIs. 

“Brand exposure in article readership as determined by actual reach, rather than unique monthly visitors, shares of news content across media, viral proliferation that increases share of voice, owned site traffic driven by news and social, material shifts in perception, reputation and share of wallet are all critical to consider,” he explains.

“What is valuable?” Latz concludes. “Outcomes that are tied to business results and drive exponential value for clients.”

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