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Jan 1, 2006 (Vol. 26, No. 1)

Measurement of a Communications Program

Setting Objectives and Determining Whether These Goals Have Been Met Is Crucial

  • Gauging return on investment on a corporate communications campaign is almost as challenging as conceptualizing the underlying creative strategy.

    With budgets under continuous scrutiny, communications departments are often under intense pressure to rationalize expenditures. They are simultaneously being required to validate a project's success by producing quantifiable results.

    Cost justification is only one piece of the puzzle. Investment dollars as well as stock prices often follow news coverage. Successful campaigns also create brand awareness, stimulate consumer demand, and lead to peer-to-peer strategic marketing opportunities. But it doesn't always follow that creators of public relations campaigns build measurement into the equation.

    Traditionally, public relations practitioners have shied away from measurement. Often coming from arts and humanities backgrounds, they aren't "number crunchers" and sometimes believe that PR efforts can't be quantified.

    Up until a few years ago, the benchmark for success was simple: a clipbook documenting press mentions. This was often accompanied by graphical representations showing equivalent ad value. These charts provided senior management with some evidence that the company's public relations efforts generated far more value than its PR budget expenditures; at least in theory.

  • Technological Solutions

    These rudimentary forms of measurement have been replaced by a range of technology solutions. The industry has spawned services that monitor across all media platforms and provide netted results that can be analyzed according to a hierarchy of variables. And although the clipbook is still used, it might now be digital with various measurements overlaid to add value.

    As sophisticated as these new tools have become, they are of no value unless they are used. Even more important is outlining the objectives of the campaign. Objectives must be quantifiable, specific, and tie in to the organization's objectives. Otherwise, the public relations program becomes so much overhead.

    Say the objective is brand awareness. Are potential customers more aware of the brand after the campaign than they were before? Other objectives might be an increase in sales, or a change in the public's perception of a company.

    This last measure is especially relevant for so-called crisis communications.

  • Primary Measures

    There are three primary measures that communications professionals typically rely upon: Outputs, outtakes, and outcomes.

    Outputs, which manipulate such data as number of news releases or volume of clips and manipulate them in various ways, are going to be the focus of the rest of this article.

    In a comprehensive measurement program, outputs will not only be measured over time but will also be compared with similar numbers for competitors and correlated with data reflecting the campaign's objectives. Ideally, they will be supplemented with measures of outtakes and outputs.

    Outtakes, which measure how messages were received and how well they were remembered, and outcomes, which measure whether a desired behavior is achieved, are ultimately more important than measuring outputs.

    Outtakes involve doing primary research using such techniques as focus groups and surveys. As such, they are often too expensive or beyond the scope of some communications professionals.

    For companies that use a press release distribution service (e.g., Business Wire, PR Newswire), that service can assist in measuring outputs. Business Wire's own suite of NewsTrak services provides a report that shows selected websites on which a release was posted, a report on views and downloads of the release, and also offers a clipping service and a media-analysis tool.

    Outputs measurement can start, but most emphatically, not end with the news release. To be meaningful, the analysis of news release impact should be shown over a span of time and include whether the release was noticed by the intended audiences.

  • The Audience

    News releases today have more than one audience. Despite recent media hype to the contrary, editors of key industry publications are still an important audience. These editors are decision-makers who do read a variety of news and industry publications and rely upon them to provide important information. Consumers can read news releases themselves, of course.

    Despite representing a small aspect of a total public relations campaign, measuring the number of views and downloads a release had is worth doing. News release outputs can also be graphed to show correlation against media coverage. This approach can reveal strengths and weaknesses in the company's communications strategy.

    Measuring media coverage, of course, is another way of measuring outputs. To do this requires some type of media monitoring service. There are many choices these days, from the traditional hard-copy clipping service to web-based services, companies that specialize in monitoring broadcast news, local companies, or database companies, such as LexisNexis, Factiva, or DIALOG, that allow a company to do its own monitoring.

    Several companies combine these services, and there are companies that enable monitoring of consumer-generated media, such as blogs, Usenet newsgroups, and electronic bulletin boards.

    No one service is truly comprehensive, but using a paid service will yield more robust results than relying upon free services like Google News or Topix.net. These services, however, can be a valuable supplement to an existing monitoring program.

    It can be difficult to select a monitoring solution, and it is worth keeping in mind that trying to monitor everything ever written about a company anywhere in the world is an impossible task.

    Some considerations in choosing a service include the type of media that need to be monitored (web-based, print, broadcast, consumer-generated media, dailies, trades, scientific journals), geography (a U.S.-based clipping services cannot provide comprehensive coverage of Asian news, for instance), staffing (in-house clipping requires a lot of staff time), frequency requirements (whether time notification is necessary), and budget.

  • Vendor

    Before deciding upon a vendor, it is important to make sure that the service selected includes monitoring of the media that are most important to the company. If it isn't not possible to find a vendor who can do this, it might be necessary to subscribe to key publications and/or monitor key websites individually. It can be particularly difficult to find a good way to monitor scientific journals, since they are often not available on the Web.

    Some database services do provide access to scientific journals, while clipping services typically do not. Access fees, however, might be high and/or the full text of articles might not be included.

    Even with a clipping program in place, it is not enough to simply count clips. At the very least, the coverage a company receives should be charted over time and compared with competitors' and industry coverage so that the company has a benchmark.

    If these data are plotted against such variables as sales over the same period or hits on the company's web site, a better picture of whether a PR campaign is hitting its targets and supporting the objectives of the company can emerge.

    When media coverage is analyzed in an even more sophisticated way, its value as a measurement tool increases. That is where the previously mentioned technology solutions come into play.

    One way to analyze clips is to use ad-value equivalency. This technique measures the number of column inches represented by an article and compares it to the equivalent cost of an ad that size in that publication. This approach, however, has been widely discredited in recent years.

    Modern approaches tend to measure share of discussion (SOD) in which the amount and type of coverage a company receives is compared to the coverage of its competitors, adjusted to reflect positive vs. negative articles.

    To make this measure truly effective, not only does a company need to take into account how many articles were generated but also how prominently the company was mentioned, how many readers that publication has, whether those readers are among the most desirable target audience, and whether the tone of the article was positive, negative, neutral, or did it have or lack any emotional content.

    Another important aspect of media analysis is to note whether the article contained messages the company wishes to convey.

  • Automated Media Analysis

    For companies that receive a great deal of media coverage, an automated media-analysis product is a useful tool. There are a number of companies that provide such products and they generally function as a combination clipping service/media-analysis solution. Each has somewhat different measures, but as long as the same measures are applied consistently over time and against competitors, a company can generate meaningful measurement reports.

    Some media-analysis products are simply the reports themselves. These summaries of coverage are less expensive than services that allow viewing of the underlying articles. Their value lies in their status as an easily understandable, graphic representation of SOD. The disadvantage is that no more in-depth analysis can be performed, and a company would still need a monitoring service to see actual articles.

    Human intelligence is ultimately superior to artificial intelligence when it comes to media analysis. Even when a company relies upon automated analysis due to the volume of its coverage, it is a good idea to further analyze the results by focusing on the most significant articles, appearing in the most important publications for each company being monitored.

    A person who knows the company's business and the goals of the communications program can determine whether desired messages were received and what the tone of the article was. No automated system can assess tone with 100% accuracy, which is why some products don't include that parameter.

    Given a small enough volume of articles, the entire process of media analysis can be manual. This task needn't be a daunting one. There are programs, some of them very inexpensive, that will make the process easier by creating a template.

    The volume of articles that needs to be analyzed can be made manageable by including only the most important publications. For very specialized industries, a set of publications as small as 1020 can be enough to yield a meaningful SOD report.

    Measurement is not optional. The need for setting objectives and determining whether they've been met is just as important in a communications program as it is to the organization as a whole.

    Ideally, the people in charge of these programs will take advantage of the many tools at their disposal and integrate them into a program measuring outputs, outtakes, and outcomes and come away with a better understanding of how their messages are resonating in the marketplace and on Wall Street.



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