PR Conversations welcomes a guest post by Bill Sledzik, associate professor, School of Journalism & Mass Communication, Kent State University, Ohio, U.S.A. Collectively, we quite like his regular blog posts (i.e., thought process, rigour and sense of humour), and felt that our international readership would enjoy a taste of some Tough Sledding, too.
When I started blogging back in 2006, I promised to continue only if I saw return on investment (ROI). Today, 150 posts and 745 comments later, I’m still a blogger. Tough Sledding has delivered ROI, both for me and for the PR program at Kent State. I’m sure of it. Kind of. No matter how hard I try, I can’t find a meaningful measure of my blog’s return on investment.
I could cite anecdotal evidence. For example, my posts have triggered six interviews with mainstream media (two of them U.S. national). I’ve also been quoted and linked to by nearly 100 other blogs. Overall, my body of work gives me a decent profile in the PR blogosphere—nowhere near the “A” list, but I have a small following and great Google juice.
But what does it really mean—any of it? And what has really changed as a result of my social media investment? I hope every organization is asking these questions before they spend loads of time and money on social media programs. There’s a lot to be gained in Web 2.0 experimentation, and I encourage it. But in the end, we’re all held accountable for how we spend the organization’s time and money. So focus on ROI.
The question of how we measure social media isn’t one I can answer. But I hope to suggest a simple direction and pose some questions for discussion.
What really matters?
Case by case we do a decent job tracking outcomes of social media programs. Go back to the fascinating story of the English tailor that Shel Israel wrote about. That guy sold some suits, reaping real ROI from his blog. Fast-forward to the more recent case studies that Geoff Livingston urged me to read. Good examples all, but only examples. And because results are self-reported by the consultants who implement the campaigns, they’re a little shy on objectivity. The consultants also don’t post stories about campaigns that fail. It’s bad for business.
So where do we go after the case studies? I’m not a measurement expert, nor do I understand the science of algorithms. But like most PR practitioners and educators, I know the value of return on investment (ROI). Management has been calling for bottom-line measures from PR for the past 25 years. I’m old enough to recall the transition from simple measures of column inches and gross impressions to the more tangible focus on behaviors. How effectively does our work generate leads, drive sales, reduce costs? All are bottom-line outcomes, and often difficult to tie back to PR activity—online or off.
What about relationships?
How do we measure what we really do—the relationships. If you accept the two-way symmetrical model—and I do—you embrace public relation’s mission as the building and maintaining of relationships that help our clients succeed. We help create environments that foster success. We help connect organizations and stakeholders to assure prosperity. Measure that!
As Brian Oberkirch declared earlier this year, it’s a bit like trying to “nail down a shadow.” But nail it down we must, or our social media initiatives won’t be taken seriously by the people who pay for them.
The PR measures of yesteryear won’t cut it—circulation, impressions, households. Nor will the modern gauges of page views, click-throughs, etc.; they are already considered passé by the experts. Leads are great, because we can track them directly to sales in some cases. But not all PR campaigns are designed to generate sales.
Oberkirch lists 22 measures we can consider for our social media, but only three will turn the heads of CEOs:
• cross sales
• reduced service costs
These are all bottom line outcomes. The rest—page views, feed subscriptions, comments, etc.,—are important for our own tracking operations, but of little value in the boardroom.
The more I read blogs and follow the use of social networks by business, the more I believe measuring social media isn’t much different than measuring other PR activities. It’s all about the behaviors, something Pat Jackson preached until the day he died. (This was along with Jackson’s belief that relationships are at the core of effective public relations practice.)
The steps leading up to behavior may be easier to observe online, thanks to the digital fingerprints we leave. But in the end, a PR professional still wants to know if the stakeholders did what we hoped they would do: buy, sell, vote, etc.
Where to go from here?
Because those behaviors so often result from relationships PR folks help to build, we’re back full-circle. But can we ever really measure the “relationship?” I won’t go all “academic” on you here, but every PR professional should read the seminal paper on this topic from Grunig and Hon. And while you’re on the Institute for Public Relations’ website, surf around to find other papers that came later, such as those papers testing the premise of relationship measurement. It may spark and idea or two for measures we can build into our own social media initiatives.
It’ll take someone far wiser than me to operationalize concepts like “control mutuality” or “exchange relationship,” but it’s time to bring these ideas out of the lab. The good news is that all six components of relationships would be evident in just about every form of online dialogue, from e-mail to Facebook. We just have to capture the data. No easy feat, but do-able nonetheless.
One thing is certain: It’s time to take the task of social media measurement beyond the anecdotal. I’ve seen so many case studies I feel like the Web 2.0 world has gone into reruns.
Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of companies to help you measure social media activities. Just don’t look for any of them to measure behaviors or relationships. I am impressed with Buzz Logic, a company that touts an algorithm including more than a dozen factors to gauge the influence of people discussing a given topic in social media. According to its website, the system measures factor in, “relevance and overall popularity of an individual post, along with the relevance and popularity of all in-linking posts.…”
I still don’t hear the word “behavior.” But this sounds like a good diagnostic tool that can help reshape our strategy as it unfolds, and it’s relatively inexpensive. I’d love to hear what others are using to track and analyze the online conversation.
Answers? Who has answers?
Like I said, I didn’t promise answers to the measurement puzzle. If I had them, I’d quit blogging immediately and have my checks sent to the beach house in St. Lucia. What I’m hoping for is discussion on how we can connect, as systematically and directly as possible, social media activity to the behaviors of our stakeholders. If you have ideas on relationship measures, let’s hear that, too.
We all know the business world is built on measurable and tangible results. I worry that too many social media enthusiasts are overlooking this point. For most top executives, if you can’t weigh it or you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist. I guess that’s why so few philosophers—and even fewer bloggers—are sitting in the CEO’s chair.
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About Bill Sledzik
Tough Sledding (Bill’s blog)
PR Heavyweights in 13-Round Slugfest (Bill’s guest “referee” gig on Strumpette)
Kent State University’s Public Relations Program
Media Mindsets research group at Kent State (research across all disciplines, not just PR)