Recently, I received a question from one of my clients regarding how we track the success of our print and online PR campaigns. In the process of thinking through the question, I realized that the changing landscape of the media (due to the fast face of technology) really hasn’t changed the way we look at these kinds of campaigns.
Since time immemorial, the only way to actually gauge the success of a print PR campaign was to indicate where placements were made and then list the circulation of that print outlet. For instance, if the Tampa Tribune ran your story on a weekday, the print circulation would be in the 150,000 range. On a Sunday, it would jump to 225,000. Now, that’s not to say, nor has it ever been intended to say, that 225,000 people read your article. It simply rated the size of the news outlet that carried the piece.
And, print outlets used their circulation numbers as the principal guideline to calculate their ad rates. They still do, but the Internet has added a new dimension to that. When the Internet came to be, advertisers loved the fact that they had a better measure, because they could track clickthroughs on banner ad campaigns and even identify where the users came from, how long they stayed on your page and whether they bought anything.
When these numbers and stats were known to be available, the terms spread like wildfire: clickthroughs, pageviews, unique visitors, impressions, etc. And, while these terms are primarily used in advertising, some do have relevance with PR placements that appear online.
Many PR agencies – mine included – choose to continue to gauge our traditional print and online efforts in the same manner that we’ve always done it, by reporting a placement and indicating the size of that outlet’s readership. For traditional publications, circulation of the publication is the determining factor. For online publications (as well as news search engines, websites and blogs) the size is determined by a statistic known as Visitors Per Month, or VPM.
By indicating an online publication has a VPM of two-million, PR pros are not saying that two-million people read your article. They’re simply indicating the reach of the site in the same way that the value of an article in a traditional publication would be judged by its circulation.
I’ve also run into some confusion over how placements are rated on large news aggregators like Yahoo!® and MSN®. Every article on Yahoo is searchable through engines, and can be found by surfing its sections. For instance, if you want to find out about the NFL labor negotiations (in the same way you would open your daily paper to the sports section), you would go to Yahoo, click on sports, and surf the sports headlines until you find the information you want. The URL for those stories will be sports.yahoo.com/blahblahblah. And with business stories, it’s biz.yahoo.com/blahblahblah. Those entry pages are considered a part of Yahoo proper and the separate URL simply offers Yahoo a better way to organize their massive amounts of content, and also provide the user another entry point to view it.
So if your PR agency got an article placed on Yahoo’s sports or business page, the VPM for Yahoo would be the statistic used as there are no sub pages or sub sites within. It’s simply Yahoo and everything contained within is part of Yahoo. This scenario is identical to circulation in a traditional publication. It doesn’t matter if your story appeared in the sports section or the business section of a newspaper. Each section doesn’t get its own circulation rating. The circulation of the publication is one figure for the entire edition.
The point is, we can talk about impressions and VPM and circulation all day long, and balance it against all these new technologies designed to deliver consumers to your Web site. However, none of it means anything relative to the consumer. We don’t always know exactly what takes the consumer from the point of being interested in you to the point of buying your product, book or service. However, we do know that process always includes the building of trust and that’s why the third-party verification provided by real honest-to-goodness media coverage will always trump all the analysis of impressions and numbers.
After all, while the delivery system may be highly technical, the consumer is not. The consumer is looking for quality information in the news outlets they have confidence in. And, your ability to engage the consumer in a meaningful way that creates trust is dependent on you being able to gain coverage in those news outlets.
At the end of the day, statistics will never be more important than trust in the consumer sales cycle and the only tactic that can deliver it is good old-fashioned public relations.