Beyond press clippings – a modern way to measure PR ROI

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In 2016 ‘The Independent’ newspaper shut down its presses and moved to online-only publishing, reflecting a growing trend as more UK consumers now get their news through online media than traditional print (Oxford University/Reuters Digital News Report 2016).  This provides the PR industry with a tremendous opportunity to finally be able to demonstrate the value it creates.  We’re not talking about social media here, but about the vast array of publications that appear online – whether they are print publications with online versions, publications which have migrated entirely online or media which were born in purely digital form.

Online media deliver PR content to a regular and measurable audience in one of two ways – either when the reader performs an online search for a topic he is interested in, or when the reader goes directly to an online site where the content appears, for example one of the popular online news sites.  Both types of audience contribute to the value of the PR content – the first group because they are ‘served’ that content and the second group because they find and read it during their normal media consumption.  This article explains how PR can articulate and measure the value of the first type of audience: the interested readers who discover PR-generated articles using search.

A nice thick clippings book can easily lull clients into a false sense of security about the effectiveness of their media campaigns. It’s gratifying – and not unimportant – to have a complete record of media coverage.  Yet it’s a big mistake to believe that a fat clippings book means that PR activities are giving maximum return on the PR budget.  In truth, it’s only part of the ROI picture.

Of course, visibility remains key to PR success.  However, visibility is not synonymous with numbers of brand mentions or column inches generated. It’s not the volume of coverage that is important; it’s the quality – not just of the content, but also of the publications it appears in. The most effective coverage is not necessarily the article that covers most space or contains the best images.  It’s that which can be shown to have reached the highest number of interested readers. When visibility is combined with measurable interest on the part of the audience, PR is onto a winner.

Increasingly, the publications which reach the largest number of genuinely interested people and are consequently most influential are those Earned media which appear in online search results.  Anything else belongs to what we like to refer to as ‘the long tail’.  This reflects the Pareto rule that 80% of the results will come from only 20% of the published content about any given brand or company.  Beyond that, results will follow the law of diminishing returns, revealing little that has had a significant impact on ROI – even if it faithfully reproduces brand messages and is accompanied by a flattering picture of the CEO.

Get it into the most visible online search results, though, and Google ensures longevity for high-quality content long after the story has been published and the clippings book has become dog-eared and dusty on the table in reception.  Not only does it reach the interested audience on the day it first appears – it might continue to do so for months afterwards if it appears in a publication which ranks highly on Google, amplifying the effect of the time and money invested in creating it. Google is the arbiter of reach, promoting content which it knows is relevant and credible to the search term entered by the interested audience; creating a pre-qualified range of articles for the interested audience to find, click on and read.

How can organisations optimise the reach their PR attains online?  Firstly, they should know which search terms are most popular for their market segment.  These terms deliver most potential readers and content which appears in the associated results is far more likely to be seen and read than that which appears for less popular search terms. This, of course, is why there is an open and transparent auction for keywords which help position content in the right places.  However, PR can achieve those objectives just as effectively as SEO if it understands which media are likely to occupy the search results. It takes a little investment in budget and time to identify the best vehicles for any given content, but in ROI terms it’s far better to be riding the bus that’s most popular with the interested audience and has Google’s durability.

In a push / pull model of audience engagement, the long tail of coverage will, over time, contribute something to visibility and reach, especially in niche trade publications with very specific audiences.  However, when PR spend is under pressure, getting the top 20% in the places where it pulls in a ready-made and interested online readership can considerably increase payback in monetary value and audience engagement.

In my next post, I’ll explain more about calculating ROI from the second audience – those who find PR content while consuming their habitual online media, without going through search.


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