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While PR is not, and will likely never be, an exact science, there are certain metrics commonly used in measuring its results. These key performance indicators (KPIs) are vitally important, and should also reflect the brand’s business and marketing goals. For example, is the brand aiming to be known for a specific value proposition or offering? If so, this differentiator needs to be in every PR-fueled or generated article. Perhaps a brand is overcoming some less-than-ideal press, and so needs to push those stories down? If that’s the case, getting positive placements in media outlets that rank higher than any negative search results (followed by measuring the SEO impact) might be the number one goal.
While there is no cookie-cutter approach to perfectly measuring PR success, there are proven ways to evaluate various impacts.
1. Media impressions
This term — a calculation of total audience reached — is a classic PR metric, and a reliable indicator of roughly how many people saw placements your brand achieved throughout a campaign. In practice, a PR team might set a benchmark for the total number of impressions sought, then strive to meet or surpass that mark.
Pros: An outlet’s UVPM (unique visitors per month), aka its monthly viewership or readership, can determine a media placement’s potential reach and help brands evaluate how many people likely saw it.
Cons: While easily accessible, the reach of an outlet doesn’t translate into a literal number of viewers. It’s unlikely one specific article or segment was viewed by every potential audience member of an outlet.
While media impressions can be valuable in motivating PR teams to prioritize high-circulation publications, this KPI can be a fickle indicator of actual campaign performance, especially if used alone rather than in combination with additional KPIs (outlined below).
2. Key message inclusion
Key messages focus on the content of a placement rather than the tier of the outlet it appears in. A car brand, for example, might want to be mentioned in articles discussing efficient mileage, or ensure that any media placement it secures includes that message. This metric is especially useful when a key message is central to the brand’s value proposition or points of differentiation.
Pros: Measuring the number of key messages included in media placements, or the percentage of articles that include these key messages, works well as an indicator of whether these differentiators and value propositions are being consistently touted.
Cons: As a standalone metric, without considering the placement’s overall sentiment and content, this KPI is unreliable. For example, a brand and its key messaging could be highlighted in an article about a less-than-ideal topic, or that brand and its key messaging might be contained within a larger profile about a competitor, yet that mention would still show up as a positive data point.
This metric is best used when also tracking the overall sentiment (positive, neutral or negative) of placements, so be sure to consider the context of each placement, rather than simply counting key message pull-through rate or percentage.
Related: 4 Tips for Hiring the Right PR Agency
3. Target media secured
Often, PR professionals will create a list of anywhere from 10 to 50 top publications that reach a client’s target audience, then strive to be included in a certain percentage of them.
Pros: By targeting a specific list of publications, a brand and its PR team can align on the precise placements that pack the most punch in terms of reaching a target audience.
Cons: A common pitfall is the tendency to develop a list that’s too narrow. Brands — especially startups or those new to PR — might be tempted to limit themselves to pitching national (well-known) publications exclusively, in the hopes of moving the brand awareness needle or attracting investors for the next round of funding.
For target media to be an effective KPI, it’s best to cast a wider net and work toward those larger publications over time. After all, there are only so many of them, and they can only write about a particular brand so many times in a year. An experienced PR professional knows mainstream reporters receive hundreds of pitches every day, most ending up marked as spam. Further, a strategic placement in a smaller but reputable trade publication can sometimes do even more to improve a brand’s reputation among key stakeholders, as the right audience will be more likely to see it.
4. Share of voice among competition
Share of voice (SOV) is a favorite KPI among competitive, growth-minded CEOs. It measures the online chatter about a brand, and compares it to the media mentions of any direct competitors.
Pros: SOV paints a clear picture of where a brand stands in terms of its industry influence against key competitors. It can be an especially useful metric for brands in a niche industry not often covered in top-tier media, as it sets a more realistic stage for whether the brand is included in articles about this less-covered topic. A strong SOV percentage can ultimately help measure whether your PR efforts are creating the impression that your brand is on the move and/or that you are a go-to thought leader in the industry.
Cons: When comparing brands or thought leaders with competitors of a similar echelon (and with comparable levels of funding), SOV is a reliable measurement tool, but its value becomes utterly negligible when used to track a small brand’s progress against a household name with a decades-long history and a marketing department in the multi-billions. (Think “David vs. Goliath: The Media Battle.”). So, skip this one if you’re a streaming startup competing with Netflix, Hulu or Spotify.
5. Increased web traffic and sales leads
In the long run, media coverage boosts a brand’s credibility and awareness, and can serve as a lead generation tool, especially when leveraged in combination with the efforts of other marketing disciplines. If you’ve hired a PR firm or professional in the hope of generating new leads, it’s tempting to make conversion metrics your sole focus, but it can also be unwise.
Pros: Website traffic can indicate which press hits generated the most website conversions, which can then inform the types of placements the PR team should prioritize in the future.
Cons: This is not necessarily an accurate measurement of impact, as an article lives online in perpetuity and may continue to drive website traffic for many months and years. Also, most people don’t read an article or see a television segment and then make an immediate purchase as a result. In reality, the media placement will serve as but one of these eight touchpoints required to convert interest into sales.
Website conversions should be used with caution, because they fail to capture the long-term impact of a PR campaign. Pay-per-click ads have a short lifespan, but an earned media placement lives forever. In other words, potential customers might stumble upon an article years later, and that placement could be the thing that tips the scales in your favor and encourages them to click “add to cart”.
Related: 5 Basic Online Marketing Strategies for Driving Traffic to Your Website
6. Increased SEO
If a brand needs to boost its search engine optimization, media relations can play a central role in improving that online visibility. Many top-tier media outlets have high-ranking sites, so when you earn a media placement in them, this can have a big impact on SEO, especially when you work with a dedicated SEO team.
Pros: This measurement tool can be especially useful if a brand has unwanted mentions or negative past coverage it wants to push down.
Cons: Unfortunately, many publications don’t offer backlinks as a matter of journalistic neutrality, and the most effective brand mentions must be linked in order to show a comparison of individual placements vs. overall traffic and conversions.
In some cases, a press release sent out on the wire can be a more reliable way to boost a brand’s organic SEO and online presence than a traditional media placement. Also, keep in mind that leveraging PR to boost SEO is most effective when done in conjunction with a dedicated and broad optimization effort.
7. Social media shares and engagement
Social media impressions can capture the likes, shares and comments on an article, as with any other post. This engagement can be used to measure how many people actually read an article that mentions your brand and whether it resonated with them.
Pros: A stellar article that goes viral can be a shining testament to the success of a well-crafted media pitch, one that resonates with target demographics. Brands want to be considered relevant and interesting among social media followers, and the right media placement can help.
Cons: Even a placement in the biggest news outlets doesn’t guarantee you’ll go viral. Not everyone who loves an article also shares it on social media, especially nowadays, as media channels are more fragmented. Engagement on many platforms is also down. And further, not everyone who shares a piece will always have a positive sentiment, which can inadvertently encourage a negative perception.
While social media plays a critical role in brand influence today, the media market is crowded, and the factors that contribute to a viral tweet are more complicated than whether an article is interesting or impactful. If viral posts are the goal, you might benefit from a separate digital marketing campaign to complement PR efforts.
Related: How Your Business Can Succeed With Social Media Marketing
8. Improved brand awareness or sentiment
To leverage brand awareness as a KPI, a company should conduct surveys at the outset of its campaign to determine where things stand with its target audience awareness and sentiment. Based on this, a PR team can develop a target metric such as increasing brand awareness by, say, 5% per quarter. Repeat surveys will be required each quarter to determine whether that benchmark has been reached, and to leverage any updated findings to inform future benchmarks.
Pros: Measuring improved brand awareness or an uptick in positive brand sentiment through market research is arguably one of the most reliable, comprehensive and thorough KPIs to use when measuring how a PR campaign is positively impacting a brand.
Cons: This method is also among the most expensive and time consuming. For these reasons, smaller brands or startup companies might look to other metrics to indicate performance. In addition, it is difficult to isolate whether PR or marketing initiatives (provided they are working hand in hand) are having the most positive impact.
Early in a brand’s lifespan, measuring the impact of PR on brand sentiment might be an impractical choice due to the financial investment required. If such resources aren’t available, a skilled PR practitioner can aggregate a combination of other metrics to gauge results.
Related: Are You Looking for Marketing When You Really Need PR?
At the end of the day, the true results of PR reveal themselves in those nuanced moments… when an investor mentions seeing your name in The Wall Street Journal, or a potential client recalls your contribution to their favorite industry publication. That’s where the magic becomes most evident. PR is often a slow burn at first, but it can build into a bonfire over time. With the right combination of metrics, you can watch the needle creep toward an eruption of success for your brand.