I’ve worked in the heady world of PR measurement and insights for almost 14 years now and for pretty much the whole of that time, it’s been a perceived wisdom that PR is an outcast at the table of communications disciplines. Despite it being more trusted than paid or owned media activities, it doesn’t get the credit or the budget it deserves.
This year’s State of the Profession Report from the CIPR puts “under representation of PR at board level” as the number one challenge facing the industry, up one place from last year.
So, what’s to blame? Lack of proof. PR doesn’t come to the table with data that proves its impact, whereas paid and owned do.
But do they really?
Do paid and owned actually have the best data?
It’s often been treated as gospel that paid and owned have the best data. Impactful data. Tremendous data, the best. Over the last few years, I’ve been working more and more on integrated measurement programmes, looking at paid, owned and earned media data.
The more I’m exposed to these types of projects, the more I realise that it’s actually the same story everywhere – all comms disciplines are guilty of using dodgy data and therefore fail to plan and strategise appropriately. Just because paid and owned find it easier to get their hands on data, doesn’t always mean they’re better at measuring or proving their own worth. Ironically, the thing they may be better at is doing their own PR.
All comms disciplines are guilty of using dodgy data and therefore fail to plan and strategise appropriately.
Vanity metrics is a phrase thrown about a lot in PR measurement, especially for things like impressions, volume and the dreaded AVE. But these massive numbers that don’t tell you much at all exist just as much in paid and owned as they do in earned. Impressions and dubious ‘reach’ figures abound – whether it’s paid media impressions, website impressions, social media impressions or followers.
These numbers are often just as bogus and meaningless in paid and owned as they are for earned. Just because figures for a paid campaign come from the publisher doesn’t mean that they’re airtight: a host of technical issues (like whether an ad has to fully load and be visible before an impression is counted), the ubiquity of bots and improper Google Analytics set ups are just some of the factors that can make these figures as unreliable as any earned vanity metric.
These massive numbers that don’t tell you much at all exist just as much in paid and owned as they do in earned.
The unspoken pitfalls of paid and owned data
Of course, there are other metrics in paid and owned that aren’t just big flashy numbers and actually demonstrate the actions and engagement of the audience. That’s got to be good, right? Well maybe not – the amount of fraudulent activity online means that we can’t trust even those figures. Some studies suggest that up to 90% of clicks generated in an ad campaign are bots.
Some people go so far as to question clicks that they see CTR (click-through rate) as a negative indicator and an harbinger of doom (aka, bots. Lots and lots of bots). The phasing out of third party cookies on Chrome, which Google announced at the start of the year, certainly won’t make it any easier to understand genuine audience interaction and behavior online.
The amount of fraudulent activity online means that we can’t trust even [paid and owned] figures.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that paid and owned aren’t immune from the lack of planning that is often evident in PR and earned media. Campaigns may be meticulously planned from an execution standpoint and from a media buying perspective, but in my experience they are just as likely to be unfocused in their objective-setting as earned communications.
Personally, I think the abundance of data is to blame for this one. Paid and owned teams know there’s no shortage of data available on their campaigns – in contrast, they’re usually drowning in data. Impressions, clicks, views, sessions, users, engagement rates, interaction rates, bounce rates, CPM, viewability – the list goes on.
It’s understandable, then, that this may cause them to occasionally be guilty of not thinking about which metrics will actually display their success, or what success actually looks like and what they want to get their audience to do.
If you want to measure the success of a display ad campaign, for instance, looking at paid CTR is fairly pointless. People don’t click on display ads (hence Weinberg’s point about CTR being a negative indicator) – display ads are good for awareness, not getting clicks. Yet CTR is repeatedly measured for display ad campaigns.
Why do we trust paid and owned more than earned data?
So, if paid and owned data isn’t always as robust, doesn’t always prove impact and share many of the same faults as earned media data, why is it so trusted by the C-suite and boards? Why does paid and owned continue to get a bigger chunk of the marketing and comms budget?
Algorithms, AI and technology have a certain air of the Wizard of Oz to them – few people really know what’s going on behind the curtain.
I think there are a few different things at play here.
One, is that paid and owned often have data experts dedicated to making sense of the metrics and stats at hand. They can put the time and effort into investigating the data and making sure that the numbers are reliable.
But there’s also a certain mythos surrounding a lot of digital media data. Algorithms, AI and technology have a certain air of the Wizard of Oz to them – few people really know what’s going on behind the curtain, but they’re in awe of it nonetheless.
Ironically, I think there’s also a storytelling element at play. Paid and owned can oftentimes be better at telling a more compelling story with the data that they’ve got, because they are more confident and comfortable with data, and/or more likely to have ‘numbers people’ in their teams who can present data in an engaging and appealing way. And that’s one of the biggest things that PR and earned need to get their heads around.
Moral of the story? Earned data is just as good as paid and owned.
Data doesn’t exist in opposition to creativity and storytelling. It’s at the heart of it. At the end of the day, what is data, but information? And what are stories, but pieces of information woven together in a narrative?
Instead of seeing data as something to be scared of or thinking that the data grass is always greener in the other comms disciplines, earned and PR should see data as just another way to do what they do best – tell compelling and engaging stories.
Don’t be afraid that the other guys [paid and owned] are doing it better than you, because chances are, they’re really not.
So, my advice to earned and PR professionals is this: don’t be afraid that the other guys are doing it better than you, because chances are, they’re really not. Don’t be afraid that data is going to show you up or be too hard to understand. Break it down into some fundamental questions: what are you trying to achieve, what are you doing to achieve that and what will it look like when you’ve achieved the thing you wanted? Do that, and you’ll be just as good as the paid and owned folks at proving your worth.
Orla is an Account Director at CARMA, with 13 years of experience in media analysis and insights. She has a particular interest in the not-for-profit sector, having contributed a chapter on evaluation of ‘Communicating Causes: Strategic Public Relations for the Non-profit Sector’ (2018, ed Garsten & Bruce), and is a member of the AMEC Not-for-Profit group, and its Young Leaders group. Aside from her passion for the measurement industry, Orla can often be found singing her heart out with London mega choir Some Voices, or staring longingly at dogs in the park across from her flat.