Let’s Get Real About PR Measurement & ROI

By Jesse Ciccone

The question of how to measure the ROI of PR (and social media and influencer relations…) is as old as the industry itself. But we have collectively and consistently failed to come up with “the answer” that rings true to believers and satisfies skeptics. (Yes, both do exist!)

The reason we have failed isn’t because we are lazy or stupid or unwilling to be accountable. It’s because the formulaic approach to calculating ROI is misguided when trying to measure the drivers of something as complex and psychological as human behavior.

There will always be a – perhaps significant – portion of PR, social and marketing’s impact that is hidden or unknowable. Consider:

  • you read a review for hiking boots in Backpacker magazine and go buy them at REI
  • a prospect reads your insightful contributed article and enters a sales meeting more pre-disposed to work with your company
  • a friend @s an Instagram post to you and you buy that brand’s product

The list could be thousands of bullets long. And, frankly, the real impact comes from the cumulative effect, but you get the point.

(If you are interested in a deeper dive on the concept, check out Alex Madrigal’s piece in the Atlantic on dark social. Even though he’s referring only to social, the tenets of the argument are the same.)

So, I guess we should just punt.

Of course not. While it’s a fool’s errand to try to “prove ROI” in the typical attribution-based model espoused by many of today’s analytics companies and digital marketing gurus (I just vomited in my mouth a little bit typing that), we still should attempt to unmask as much impact of our work on business goals as possible.

With the tools available today, we have more metrics at our fingertips than ever before. But rather than falling into the trap of positioning program metrics (impressions, coverage, sentiment, SOV, social engagement, etc.) as proof of moving the business needle, we must treat them as what they are: really valuable leading indicators.

Just as while the Consumer Confidence Index does not in and of itself prove the economy is healthy, it is a hugely important area to measure and often predictive of the economy’s performance.

I believe that, viewed in this context, the measurement discussion becomes both more fair (un-attributable value is captured) and more credible (no longer must we stumble through a non-answer when a client says “So, what?” to our report of generating a bajillion impressions and engagements).
Up, next…a model for putting the pieces together.