Social Media: effective, measurable evaluation can boost PR industry accountability

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This piece originally appeared in the IPRA Thought Leadership series of essays. [Click here for original]

Media evaluation providers should feature more prominently in PR consultancies’ social media campaign strategies to help set measurable business objectives, not brought in later when it may prove more difficult to qualify outcomes to a client, argues Salience Insight CEO Giselle Bodie.

The launch of Salience Insight in June 2013 provided a platform to warn the media evaluation and analysis community that it faces two significant challenges: to ensure that the massive upswing in social media usage is matched by our ability to track and evaluate its impact accurately – and on a global scale.

My argument is based on concerns that the market for social media evaluation risks becoming polarised between providers who can offer technical analysis to varying levels of sophistication, versus those who can use local market knowledge and human intuition to interpret data and then advise clients on the underlying implications. My point is that evaluation is only effective if it goes beyond the simply technical and actually helps inform business strategy, or facilitates better decision making.

But recent statistics suggest otherwise.

According to an Econsultancy survey last year, only 22 percent of 700 survey respondents had a strategy that tied data collection and analysis back to business objectives, while 28 percent of 1500 survey respondents struggled to tie analytics back to their campaign strategy, and only 30 percent regularly  reported to management (Alterian, 2011).

So we’re left with the impression that PR and marketing consultants are running social media campaigns in blissful isolation from their client’s business objectives (this scenario applies equally to in-house communications teams) with many too nervous to feed back the outcomes to management increasingly demanding a positive ROI.

These statistics, however, should be viewed less as an indictment of the PR industry’s inability to link social media initiatives to business objectives, and more as a need for our industry to educate the public relations community as to what is currently possible in measurement terms. And that, surely, is the point. Social media measurement is still in its infancy and must be seen as a work-in-progress – there is, as yet, no catch-all panacea, no silver bullet.

In the two years since the creation of the #SMMStandards Coalition to establish social media measurement standards, there has been extraordinary cross-industry collaboration and substantial intellectual investment.  But our industry, as a key player in this development process, risks becoming fixated with the latest metrics, or measurement methodology, when we should be focusing more on a return to first principles: setting measurable business objectives, agreeing a set of terminology and better dialogue with PR consultancies, independent consultants and their clients.

  • Setting measurable business objectives

Both the PR and evaluation communities recognise that organisations want greater accountability in return for investing in social media programmes. This is a given, so we need to adapt and do more to ensure that our collective offer is geared towards meeting this simple premise.

We can achieve this by playing to our respective strengths and by recognising that each brings very different skills sets to the table. Salience Insight are measurement experts, not communications specialists. We would no more expect to discuss the fine detail of a crisis communications strategy with a client, than expect a PR consultant to debate measurement options in any great detail during the same conversation.

I referenced earlier the extraordinary inter-industry collaboration in setting realistic criteria for social media measurement. This collaboration now needs to be extended to the boardroom table. In some cases, it will require a leap of faith to appreciate that a triangular relationship – with the client, or organisation, at the top, PR agency/consultant on one corner and measurement specialist on the other – ensures equal access to the client, improves communication and therefore provides a stronger, collective understanding of the issues he or she faces.

The worst scenario for us is a linear relationship, in which we operate in silos, with separate agendas, and limited or no access to clients. But with our global coverage, local knowledge and experience in mature and emerging markets, companies like Salience Insight can add real value by using a mix of the technical, human and scientific to support companies in setting measurable business benchmarks.

The PR industry should harness that knowledge and view evaluation providers as an essential element in their consultancy mix – because everybody benefits from a happy client

  • A set of agreed terminology

In her essay, PR Measurement: the pursuit of consistent and credible metrics, Marianne Eisenmann suggested that the absence of an industry-wide methodology for data collection and analysis is forcing in-house communications teams and their PR consultants  to use inconsistent definitions and calculations for results reporting, so frustrating management and threatening budgets and resources.

Clearly, an agreed set of terminology is vital here in addressing these frustrations and will only flow from ongoing collaboration.  Apart from introducing an element of uniformity to our industry, a common language (and unified metrics) will lead to greater transparency with clients over basic content and methodology.

That said, a common language is only one half of the story. Given the diverse nature of social media campaigns, no off-the-shelf evaluation solution exists, or is even possible. So those providers that can introduce human intervention to better understand nuances, or to spot trends that defy technical analysis, have a duty to demonstrate that, in order to be truly effective, measurement must go beyond the simply technical and embrace human elements.

  • Better dialogue with the PR industry

Note the use of the word better, rather than ‘more’. Of course, associations like IPRA and its members are already in active dialogue on a raft of issues with Salience Insight and other providers. We feature regularly in combined industry events and workshops, sharing knowledge and concerns, so a common ground already exists.

By better dialogue with the PR industry, I mean working together towards a shared goal of helping organisations make greater sense of the impact that social media is having on their brand, reputation and more besides. We want PR consultants to recognise that we can underpin their value to clients through the delivery of insightful measurement that:

– Validates their social media campaigns by finding out how people are  behaving and acting.
– Demonstrates a positive ROI.
– Boosts the overall accountability of social media programmes  with clients/in-house teams.
– Supplies them with the ammunition to refine or enhance a corporate or  client’s communications strategy.

But we need to be more top-of-mind in the PR consultancy’s early planning – not brought in as an afterthought. Technology exists to manage and measure data but, in the final analysis, you still need a human being to tell you what it really means.

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