Catching Buzz in a Bottle: Calculating Your PR ROI

The emergence of digital marketing, marketing automation and tools to gauge outcomes such as site traffic, email opens, clicks, social media influence, etc., has lead many to believe that all marketing — Public Relations included — is quantifiable. But measuring PR return-on-investment (ROI) is a tricky proposition as there is seldom a direct correlation between how much an organization spends on PR and how much business it pulls in.

Traditionally, the measure most widely used to determine PR success is the number, frequency, and breadth of media clips you’ve managed to “place” (this used to be based on magazine/newspaper articles, but now extends to retweets and mentions in prominent blogs). The scope of possible PR objectives, however, has widened and success can no longer be reliably gauged by clip volume alone. Let’s say positioning the company as a leader in technology innovation is among your top PR goals. After a year’s time you’ve won a handful of prestigious industry awards and earned several glowing product reviews. You are invited to participate on speaking roundtables, have routinely carved out column inches in articles featuring the two or three top competitors in your technology sector, and have elicited numerous retweets and amassed a sizeable Twitter following. Even here, there is no mathematical formula that connects PR activities and the short-term and longer-term business impact these activities have on the brand or company. The value of an overarching PR program remains difficult to quantify, but that doesn’t mean that its efficacy/value are beyond our ability to measure — as the following attests.

1. Qualitative Analysis of PR Messaging
While the frequency and delivery of your PR messaging is an important “success” metric, it’s also important that everything authored and issued by your account team sound consistent themes, is written in a consistent voice, and is clear and concise. Judging writing quality is of course subjective, but a designated brain trust ought to be able to review everything that’s sent out — from press releases to random tweets. One goal of effective PR is simply having the assurance that your outside — or internal — team is positioning your company and core messaging in the most appropriate, most accurate and even the most compelling manner possible. It’s also important to determine “asset allocation” — are your messages being proportionately distributed across social, web, print?

2. PR Outcomes
As mentioned above, counting the number and assessing the breadth of media placements is one metric — and an important one — but this does not by itself tell a complete story. You need to be able gauge the quality of these placements — first, are they optimally — even properly — targeted? Are you getting covered by respected traditional/new media outlets and influencers, is the coverage favorable?

At one time, clients assumed their PR initiative was successful if they received coverage in the Wall Street Journal or Information Week. Sure, you’ve managed to appear in a top-tier publication and will be seen by a significant slice of your target market. Which is no mean achievement. But your ultimate PR objective is to secure coverage that amplifies your core message (and positively supports your market positioning). What will readers come away with? What action(s) will they take?

This also applies to product reviews. It’s one thing to convince a reviews editor, analyst or influential blogger to take your software into the lab…it’s quite another if the review falls short of expectations. So again, the quality of coverage must be factored in as you assess the clips that come across your desk.

Typically, one of your top PR objectives is gaining recognition in a competitive market — which means you want to make sure to appear in every article or blog post mentioning your chief competitors and that you stack up well in head-to-head roundups or comparisons. Again, you need to go beyond clip count and consider the quality of your coverage, particularly as it relates to your competitors.

3. PR Impact
Roughly speaking, there are two types of impact: PR that prompts specific actions and PR that demonstrably changes perceptions. The first can be gauged in the short term; the second is more elusive and can only be gauged over a longer haul.

• Web site visits: An article appears in a prominent trade journal and lists your URL, but the question is, how many have visited your Web site as a result? It’s also worth mentioning that this is where PR plays a major role in “content marketing,” which is essentially search marketing but with an emphasis on the quality of the content as Google and other search engines have changed their algorithms that favor content relevance, and influence. Achieving a page one ranking is based on the articles, blog posts, tweets, white papers, case studies, press releases and infographics you write, optimize and disseminate to key websites and across social media. And — most importantly — the degree to which they get read, retweeted, favorited and passed around…which is a key PR function.

• Calls/e-mail/responses/comments: How many calls, e-mails or filled-out online forms have resulted from your specific PR initiative? How much feedback are your blog posts, tweets, Instagram updates, etc., generating?

Reputation, brand equity, market leadership…these are all critical measures of PR success. But it takes time to move the needle…it’s less about acceleration and more about gradual momentum. Indeed, it may take a year or more before you make demonstrable progress in burnishing your reputation, building your brand, and asserting market leadership. The best way of measuring success is by querying industry analysts and conducting surveys of customers and prospects.

4. Connection to Business Objectives
The ultimate metric is in determining the relationship of PR and market penetration, market share, sales and profitability. It is also near impossible to isolate PR and reliably quantify its impact on these key business objectives. In this regard, it is more useful to view PR as a tool in achieving these objectives and actively using positive PR outcomes in the sales process.

Assessing the quality of PR communications, measuring PR outcomes, understanding the short-term and long-term impact of all initiatives, and connecting PR to business objectives, are all critical to your ability to maximize your PR ROI. But when you come right down to it, determining PR ROI is about as scientific as former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of what we’ll call “adult material”: “I can’t define it,” said Justice Stewart, “but I know it when I see it.”

Charles Epstein is President of BackBone, Inc., a pr and marketing firm specializing in technology, healthcare and workforce management. For more, visit

Tech, Workforce and Healthcare PR, marketing communications, bus development.

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