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Beware of vanity metrics

What are the three pillars of measuring what matters?

5-7 minutes

It’s no secret that showing how PR outcomes can drive business objectives is vital. And, in an increasingly uncertain economic climate, comms professionals from all industries are under pressure to justify their budgets and prove the value of their activities and agency partnerships.

The good news is that PR measurement is improving, assisted by a myriad of new tools and availability of data that can be used to analyze the success of campaigns. But not all measurement is equal, and the bad news is that, just as blunt-form AVEs (advertising value equivalency) have finally lost their lustre, a fresh wave of ‘vanity’ metrics have come crashing into the world of communications.

What’s a ‘vanity’ metric?

Vanity metrics take the form of likes, views, mentions and shares, which are easy to automate but lack accuracy as well as not providing insight or value.

Even seemingly bullet-proof metrics like downloads of a report or whitepaper can be considered a vanity measurement, if it doesn’t really mean anything to a business. Just because a site visitor clicked download on a link doesn’t mean they engaged with the content, that it influenced their perception or prompted any action. What does that download actually deliver?

So, vanity metrics are those that feel important but are ultimately superficial, or worse, deceptive. Metrics like impressions, likes, retweets, mentions, page views, and so on are not performance indicators. And, while some of these are important for benchmarking, they shouldn’t be mistaken for intelligence. In the big picture, vanity metrics actually hold you back.

Still not sure on them? Here are 22 reasons to say no to AVEs.

So how do you make sure your metrics matter? There are a couple of simple steps to follow.

1. Decide what matters most

With the technology now available to measure almost everything, it’s easy to drown in data. There’s no one-size-fits-all, and you need to identify what matters to you and ignore the noise and abundance of numbers that aren’t helpful. For example, while you might be interested to know what media coverage you’ve got across the world, does that really inform your leadership team about performance or equip you to advise them on what to do next?

Reassessing what’s important might mean rethinking your objectives (and is why measurement should be factored in right from the very start of a campaign). If you’re working for a brand that’s targeting a niche audience, is a national media hit as impactful as an article in a well-respected trade publication? The chances are the answer is no, but you might need to do some educating amongst your colleagues about what’s going to be valuable, what’s not and why.

2. Test what’s working (and stop what’s not)

Speaking to colleagues across the industry, there has been a clear trend in senior PR and communications professionals insisting on quantitative metrics being verified rigorously, and qualitative metrics being human-curated, to ensure insights are meaningful and actionable.

And the same rigor should be applied to testing and re-testing goals and objectives. Listen to senior management, your team and your clients (internal or external). And ask the questions which will help you decide what’s important.

A good place to start is the strategic goal of the PR program. You may hear, for example, “increase share of voice” (SOV) – but why? Or, you might hear “we want to put this message out on social media so people can see it” – and then…what? What is the outcome you are trying to achieve? Is it to increase sales, prompt action or change perceptions? And how does that support the broader business objectives? How long do you have to achieve your mission? Information like this helps you decide what to measure and how.

Of course, insisting on rigour shouldn’t mean we stop innovating and experimenting, and learning from other disciplines too. Collaboration is crucial, whether that’s with marketing departments, sales teams or external agencies. Read as much as you can, and look for new developments and ideas as you go.

3. Be guided by the Barcelona Principles

Take a look at the Barcelona Principles, recently refreshed for 2020. These guidelines offer advice to help avoid vanity metrics, and to measure and evaluate communications activity in a meaningful and relevant manner.

By measuring what is important, and continually testing and validating procedures, the industry can leave vanity metrics and other meaningless measurement behind. But there are no silver bullets when it comes to PR evaluation. Looking closely at your business goals is a crucial place to start, while trying to ignore the noise from irrelevant or unnecessary data sources, and focusing in on what works for your brand will keep you on track. Critically, measurement shouldn’t be an end-point to your campaign, but a learning tool to shape where you go from here, and what you do next.

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