The challenge of holding PR to performance metrics

When Natalie Gerke joined mobile monetization startup Button seven months ago, one question its CEO asked her was how she planned to measure public relations efforts beyond impressions.

“While impressions can tie back to how big the actual site is, there are times where a more strategic outlet is more valuable than the outlet with the most impressions,” said Gerke, head of corporate communications for Button.

Without a budget to sign up for a PR software, Gerke has to develop her own measurement framework. She monitors and analyzes media coverage every day, Googling articles that mention her employer and its partners, and include quotes from Button execs.

She categorizes publishers into different tiers based on their importance to Button. And every two weeks, she uses Google Analytics to track “sessions” (a group of interactions that may contain pageviews and e-commerce transitions on a website) to define an article’s value, if the story includes a linkback, Gerke explained.

And the growth in inbound inquiries is also a good metric. For instance, when a first-tier publication posted an article about Button last month, its marketing team received a few inquiries from merchants and publishers asking how they could integrate with the company. “This is a huge win in my book,” she said.

While Gerke is able to quantify her work with metrics like inquiries, mentions, sessions, content sentiment and the number of media placements, she can hardly show direct revenue from a piece of media coverage, especially a sales cycle at a business-to-business company can take months, she said.

Gerke is not alone. While Leah Taylor, director of PR and communications for design firm InVision App, looks at similar metrics, she said that assigning a monetary value to each site visitor, mention or share is impossible at the moment.

“It is hard to put a dollar value on PR work,” said Taylor. “I hope that someone can crack the code.”

From an external PR agency’s perspective, Chi Zhao, founder of Hokku PR, thinks that if clients are looking for money-related metrics, they can evaluate the amount they pay for the PR retainer against the amount they would have paid for marketing and advertising to get in front of a specific target audience.

But it is hard to measure how many people are actually influenced by a PR campaign. Unless an article is embedded with a special link or the client can share metrics from their Google Analytics, it is hard to know where and if people are coming from a specific article, explained Zhao.

“If a product launches without any paid marketing, it is easier to isolate the impact of the campaign by downloads or new users,” she said. “There have been times where clients said the users acquired through PR were much more meaningful.”

The biggest challenge in measuring PR performance, Zhao noted, is when companies try to evaluate it the same way they would evaluate putting $5 on a Facebook ad.

“There is long-term value in a company’s investment in PR,” she said. “It is essentially out there writing each company’s history, something that far outlasts a 30-second ad for the most part.”

Gretel Going, co-founder of PR firm Channel V Media, thinks that clients are focused on metrics because they don’t know what’s going on. So her team built a dashboard for clients to see the pitch process and status of conversation. For those who are really serious about PR metrics, Channel V Media will provide a report on social growth, the number of new consumers, traffic from media coverage and more.

But Going thinks that PR is more of an art than a science. If a client wants to be on Bloomberg, for instance, it is still a big win for the client if Bloomberg covers the brand but the story doesn’t generate leads.

“You just know if PR works,” she said. “It is really less about metrics.”

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