FEATURE7 August 2009

Measuring PR effectiveness: Is search the answer?


Mark Westaby of media analysis firm Spectrum believes online search ratings offer an answer to the perennial question of how best to measure the outcome of public relations activity.

The PR industry still doesn’t have a standard for measurement and evaluation, but Mark Westaby thinks he might have found the answer. And it’s free. Search engine trend tools (such as Google Trends) are the ideal way to see whether your PR activity is working, he argues. We spoke to him about what’s wrong with PR measurement and how these tools could fix it.

What sort of state is PR measurement in?
There’s quite a big crossover between research and media evaluation and the evaluation companies have done a very good job, but the problem is that the PR industry has always wanted an evaluation standard. They’ve always looked for this silver bullet that would mean you could compare the results from one company with another and use it in house and so on. There are very good reasons why that silver bullet has never existed.

So they’ve always fallen back on these advertising value equivalents (AVEs) which are just unbelievable. The whole thing is a farce. The vast majority of the PR industry now agrees that AVEs are totally discredited and have no place as a measurement tool, but they are still used a heck of a lot.

Why are they still being used?
For want of anything better. To be fair to the PR industry, you have clients who use them shamelessly and you get finance directors who like it because it’s in pounds, shillings and pence. You can see why they use it - it’s easy, you can end up with a very big number relatively easily, and it’s great for the client because they can justify it with their bosses and it’s seen as a consistent amount. The fact that one company will calculate it one way and another will calculate it another way – and you can basically do it anyway you want – is neither here nor there.

We don’t agree with AVEs. They’re completely flawed. But if a client insists on having them we’ve got no alternative. I’ve seen instances where people have produced a fantastic report and the clients go straight to the number and just say ‘I’m gonna use that.’ It’s frightening. But now the Central Office of Information is saying it wants a measurement standard - they’re going to be insisting on it. And if they’re doing it, it’s a good sign that others will follow suit. 

What do you suggest as an alternative to AVEs?
I believe search is a fantastic solution to the problem. Google Trends is a seriously impressive tool. There will inevitably be people who say search ratings are open to abuse, but frankly search engines are pretty sophisticated and there are very sophisticated ways of identifying where things are being abused. And even if it is abused occasionally, AVEs are 100% abused. Everybody accepts that.

But how do you know if it’s positive or negative?
You get that from the media analysis. If you’ve got a product recall, the media analysis will tell you the coverage is negative. You can then look for the number of searches for that specific problem. Very recently we were involved in a piece of measurement for a product recall where the number of searches was less than 100, in which case you say actually that’s not bad. If that number had been 10,000 then we would have had a problem.

So is search being used widely to measure PR?
No it’s not.

Why not?
I don’t know. I think to be honest it’s because the industry isn’t very sophisticated when it comes to outcome measures. I can’t find anybody else who’s doing it. And I think that’s because most people are just not aware of what you can do with search or not aware of the Google Trends and Insight tools. I’ve been surprised that since I’ve raised this, no-one else has said, ‘I suggested that six months ago.’

I think what gives this credibility is Google. There are a lot of tools out there that are flaky but I don’t think Google is flaky, I think it’s very solid. And it’s just sitting there, free.

Don’t you worry that clients could use these tools and take you out of the equation?
No, it’s got to be good for the industry. Search gives you the outcome but you want to know why that has happened, what’s generating that search. I think that would actually help the market for evaluation to grow. And there’s a strong business case because search is the number one source for information when people are buying something. It’s not just a number, it has real business value attached to it. So evaluation companies could do a fantastic job, and we’d have a common de facto standard to compare like with like.