The evaluation of PR campaign effectiveness is controversial. Forget for a moment the inadequate practitioners that insist all PR must have a benefit so better just get on with it than devote energy to measuring it, and you're left with an array of evaluation processes as diverse as the number of agencies.
Return on investment
The most over-used term is ROI. And that applies to all marketing disciplines not just PR. For example, I posted last week about the winners of OnMedia's Best of Broadband Advertising awards, yet when you read the rationale justifying OnMedia's selections only three out of ten make an attempt to link the campaign to a fillip to the client's bottom line. "Creative" and "ROI" are not synonymous.
There are best practice evaluation guidelines. Our own approach for example combines the CIPR best practice recommendations with elements of Kaplan and Norton's Balanced Scorecard. It secured full marks from the PRCA's auditor, but a consistent return on investment calculation remains as stubborn a problem for us as the rest of the industry.
Look to search
We review and hone our measurement approach regularly, and our latest review is throwing up some interesting perspectives. Here's one; a polemic more than a guiding principle at the moment…
If our campaigns strive to exert influence, isn't Google search the ultimate measure of the influence achieved, and the change in that influence over time?
A corollary to this is that the ultimate role of a marketing consultancy is SEO.
Before we identify the weaknesses in this claim, here are some supporting points of view:
- With Google spidering most of the offline world (as that content is put online too), all online publications, forums, chat rooms, blogs and social networks, only a search engine can add up the cumulative effect of brand and product mentions and their association with key words, key phrases.
- The search engines strive to deliver the most relevant search results to users. Their algorithmic methods make this measure of relevance more or less equivalent to brand influence and brand momentum.
- The primary objective of PR, of all marketing disciplines, is to inculcate brand loyalty with current customers and attract new customers. If the Web is the most important channel to these targets forming an opinion of your brand and products, and if search is the way they get around the Web, then QED search is the ultimate measure of marketing campaign effectiveness.
Not quite perfect
Now for the flaws in the argument. We’ve identified a few, but here are the two primary objections.
The first is that today's search engines ignore sentiment. Northern Rock currently comes pretty high in search engine results for some of its associated key words and phrases, but not for good reasons. Search engines today do not have well developed semantic analysis capability. In other words, they can’t distinguish between “Tell me about building societies with a good reputation” and “Tell me about building societies”.
Our second objection is connected to my mantra that goes...
The discontented spread their discontent. The neutral say nothing. The content say nothing. The delighted spread their delight.
Many brands and products spend most of their time in the middle of this spectrum. Consider your own bank for example, or broadband provider, or mobile phone operator. Customers and prospects are either neutral or content and contribute nothing audible and nothing visible for any search engine to stuff into their mathematics. Yet the opinions residing unexpressed in the minds of customers and prospects will exert an influence next time they need to reach a buying decision.
We can't envisage a future where our second objection to our argument here is shot down, but the potential of the Semantic Web, semantic analysis and interpretation, will have interesting ramifications for the measurement of marketing campaign effectiveness. Perhaps, even, helping build up that illusive ROI formula.