PR Attribution: “It’s Just a Tough Sell”

February 11, 2016 Mark Emmons


Last October, Samuel Moore hit the corporate communications version of the jackpot.

Moore, the head of global public relations for e-commerce intelligence company BloomReach, conducted a survey that contained a eye-opening discovery. Nearly half of all online consumers, Moore found, use Amazon as their starting point for product searches.

With that provocative finding as the headline, the BloomReach survey results spread like wildfire. The Amazon story was picked up by CNBC. The Today Show. Local television newscasts and radio reports. Business and tech websites.

“Suddenly, we had prospects who were engaged with our sales process saying, ‘Hey, I saw that article, can you tell us more?’” Moore recalled. “We had cold retailers coming to us asking: ‘Who are you and can you tell us more?’ Because of that response, we created a webinar on the fly that brought in a record number of people to hear the full report. So we were able to say that PR was responsible because we could point to a campaign that created new movement and unclogged some of the pipe.”

But that successful survey also was an aberration when it comes to assessing with pinpoint accuracy the impact of public relations. Usually, trying to gauge the influence of PR on closed deals and pipeline is, well, a pipe dream.

“We know that PR does something,” Moore said. “We know it moves the needle. But we can’t say exactly what. It’s just a tough sell.”

move needle

Does your PR move the needle?

An entire ecosystem of technology tools has emerged to help B2B marketers measure their effect on the business. And yet some touches in a buyer’s journey are darn near impossible to track. That’s why so many industry experts continue to have serious doubts about being able to definitely assign an ROI value to marketing efforts.

Ruth Stevens, president of eMarketing Strategy consulting firm and an adjunct professor of NYU Stern School of Business, said recently that she understands marketing departments are under more pressure because of the perception that everything on digital channels can be measured.

“But the attribution question is still a conundrum,” Stevens said. “It’s really hard to say what sealed the deal in a complex selling environment where the sales cycles is long and lots of parties are involved in the buying committee. Which piece of content, event or sales call was the most helpful in moving the process along? You really have no idea.”

Exhibit A: public relations.

Corporate communications, which usually falls under the umbrella of marketing, has the task of getting the brand “out there.” PR specialists are trying to attract media attention, speaking engagements for executives, awards. The best PR often is subtle. It’s designed to make you think favorably about a company almost at a subconscious level.

And while there are new ways to think about how to track that influence, ambiguity remains. Everyone agrees that PR matters. But as Moore said, good luck putting credible figures on that impact.

“There are PR organizations that aren’t even trying to monitor Return on Investment,” added Ann Fabens-Lassen, communication manager at Contently, a New York-based content marketing software company. “Or they’ll come up with hazy, convoluted models with arbitrary ratios. Sometimes you’ll see these inflated spreadsheets that don’t mean anything. Well that’s not enough. How are you shortening the sales cycle? How are you impacting the company? Those questions matter.”

Fabens-Lassen is one of those PR professionals trying to find a better way. Working at a data-driven startup, she realized there was an expectation to provide metrics that were realistic, transparent and most importantly, credible.

She created a home-grown “PR scorecard” tracking activities that create success for Contently. This way, there was a greater understanding throughout the company that public relations was playing a role in the sales cycle. One example was tracking events where one of the co-founders spoke.

“We might only have four leads come in from one of those speaking engagements,” she said. “But the conversion rate turned out to be a lot higher for them. Yet something was getting lost in translation until we started tracking them and could show the sales team. Of course there’s a certain amount of subjectivity to measuring things like media coverage. But hopefully we’re making it easier for our executives to say: ‘OK, I get what you’re doing.’”

BloomReach’s Moore added that archaic measurements such as media “impressions” can be a marketing technologist’s nightmare.


Do you score with public relations?

“There’s just nothing real there,” he said.

A new wave of analytic companies purport to help companies do more effective PR and solve the quandary of proving your effectiveness, Moore said. These platforms have measurements like the number of times an article that mentions your company is shared.

While technology is getting more sophisticated, Moore isn’t yet sold that the methodology is telling you something insightful. For instance, an analytics program will highlight an article that includes a passing reference to BloomReach because it had thousands of shares. But he’s more interested in a story that might have only 100 shares if it’s all about BloomReach and reaches their target audience.

What’s more effective, he said, is being a strong internal salesperson. When your content is part of a personalized sales-deck, you can argue that it helped stimulate a conversion and maybe 5 percent of pipeline creation should be credited to PR.

It’s sort of like saying in a long touchdown drive on the football field, PR threw a couple key blocks along the way that helped lead to the score.

“That’s a good analogy,” Moore said. “But if you’re a pure marketing technologist listening to that pitch, you’re saying: ‘What?’ That’s because it can’t be measured.”

But there’s a good reason why the discussion about tracking ROI is growing in the corporate communications field, Moore and Fabens-Lassen said. When times are good and budgets are flush, there might be less need to validate its importance. But when the business forecast gets chilly, PR is an area that comes under scrutiny.

“Times are changing fast,” Fabens-Lassen said. “Valuations are shrinking. Companies are going to have to be a little tighter with the purse strings. So a stronger understanding of ROI is important.”

Nobody has all the answers, she added.

“But we’re looking for them.”

Cracking the Attribution Code

Marketing teams are under more pressure than ever to quantify their influence and justify budgets. At a time when marketers are expected to prove Return on Investment, LeanData is exploring the challenges they face and how it is possible to improve account reporting.

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