Plenty of public affairs practitioners who use online channels to communicate are still perfectly happy to “get their message out” without much thought paid to whether they are actually driving any influence or change.

Thankfully, others appreciate that spending time and money on drafting drivel and being followed by a few bots from Vladivostok Is a complete waste of time.

People in the latter group are increasingly asking the question: how do we actually know whether our online communications efforts are having the desired effect?

It’s an important question, and difficult in public affairs, especially if we seek to measure the effect of online communications on the ultimate public affairs goal, namely policy impact.

Marketers are usually able to attribute a conversion (e.g. a sale) to preceding steps in the marketing funnel, especially if they all take place online. For instance: a prospective customer becomes aware by clicking on an online ad, then proceeds to ‘interest’ and ‘consideration’ by clicking beyond a landing page or subscribing to email updates, and ultimately makes a purchase online.

But the ultimate public affairs ‘conversion’ – i.e. policy impact – is harder to put at the end of a funnel. The steps preceding it are less linear, and decision-makers can shift from awareness to interest to total disinterest back to total conviction due to innumerable outside influences, like pressure from parties, constituents, or activists.

It is therefore unrealistic to create a direct line between a decision-maker’s online activity and a political decision.

Having said all that, while we may not be able to create a neat digital public affairs funnel, we can still be smart about how we track impact.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Do not over-elaborate. Set KPIs tied to fairly basic objectives that are achievable through online means e.g. building a community of relevant supporters or attracting positive interest from previously disinterested targets.
  • Similarly, set conversions that are perhaps less ambitious than ‘policy impact’ but make sure they are genuine ‘actions’ e.g. a key target subscribes for information by email, signs up to an event, or downloads a key position/publication.
  • Integrate on and offline metrics. I’ve never quite understood why most organisations insist on tracking and reporting separately given the obvious overlaps. Most simply: don’t ignore anecdotal stuff e.g. a key person (decision maker, influencer) cited your content in a meeting. A step beyond: interview people or run polls and insert questions about the reach and effects of your online efforts.
  • Stop attributing value to vanity metrics such as likes, shares or traffic. I’m not as militant as some in my profession in that I still think they’re worth tracking, for three reasons: it’s quite fun, people will invariably ask, and if numbers drop or rise dramatically it is good to try to figure out why. But in terms of effects on influence or change, they are negligible. Why? There are two main problems with vanity metrics: even if you have a simple short-term objective such as ‘building an audience of supporters’ a share or like is too weak an action to genuinely denote interest; while many vanity metrics do not allow you to identify exactly who you are reaching/engaging, meaning you have no idea whether you are actually reaching/engaging your target audiences or our aforementioned friend in Vladivostok.
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Marketing, communications and campaigning 101 tells us that awareness is only a first step preceding things like “influence” and “action”. This makes sense. If the end goal is to sell something or win an election, for instance, awareness is only relevant in that it helps to subsequently drive the relevant action (purchasing or voting, in this case.)

Marketers have forever needed to prove what comes beyond awareness. Their various sales funnels display how a prospect or customer should be made aware and then driven to purchase (and keep purchasing).

In corporate communications, our end goal is less tangible. It’s often “reputation” which is not as clear-cut as sales. Until recently, we weren’t expected to measure anything much except perhaps vanity metrics like clippings, social media followers or website hits. Hence why marketers scoff at how vacuous we are.

In public affairs, the corporate communications discipline I know best, where the end goal is affecting legislation, there was even less impetus to measure anything of value.

Change is afoot. Methods for measuring reputation are becoming ubiquitous. Single audience corporate communications disciplines like public affairs and investor relations are especially easy to tie to an end goal: regulation and investment respectively. Meanwhile, purse strings are being tightened and procurement folk are demanding proof of impact. Showing real business value through smart measurement beyond awareness is becoming the norm in corporate communications.

Overall, this is a good thing. It’ll make communications output more effective and communicators more accountable. And it should help keep communications charlatans / snake oil peddlers out of work.

And yet. Purists will scoff but there are times where there can be major, intangible value in un-measurable communication.

There are countless companies, whose products are contentious, that have damaging regulation imposed on them and lose their license to operate to varying degrees because they are quiet on their issues. Sometimes they deserve what they get because their products are disagreeable (polluting, unhealthy etc.) Sometimes the scrutiny helps them improve business practices and even discontinue the nasties. Clearly, this is a good thing.

Sometimes, issues are more nuanced. Think GMOs or certain chemicals. Yet because of a culture of reticence or fear of litigation, producers have communicated very little and allowed the media and public narrative to be shaped purely by opponents. There is no notion that there is any grey area; silence is equated with an admission of guilt.

Were they to be loud and proud, such companies would engender some level of legitimacy merely through communicating. In a way, what they say matters little. Behavioural science is at play more than message. Recipients are likely to think that the mere fact that a company is willing to communicate may mean they have less to hide. It may not win people over immediately. It may not lead to an immediate rational “action” in a customer journey map. But it might generate grey area where there previously was none. Which in turn might make regulators who are on the fence explore the issue more deeply. It may make a company less likely to be top of an activist’s target list as that they’d likely fight back. In short, it may help it avoid overly damaging regulation, possibly years down the line.

In an age of measurement mania, selling something this vague is tricky. But we should not entirely discount the value of communications that is not immediately measurable.

One of the numerous slightly artificial splits in communications is between brand (seeking to reach a consumer with a view to selling) and corporate (seeking to reach audiences that don’t necessarily purchase, but are otherwise essential, like investors, regulators, employees or analysts).

Brand and corporate people tend not to like each other much. Brand think corporate are dull, smug and behind the times. Corporate think brand are vacuous and gimmicky.

But in the digital age, it’s harder to keep the two separate: brand and corporate audiences consume the same media. Moreover, brand and corporate positioning increasingly overlap. An organisation’s purpose beyond profit, the way it treats its employees, or how it manages it books – for instance – are of interest to audiences across the brand/corporate spectrum.

This also means that people like me, whose comfort zone is corporate, can’t avoid brand gigs. Indeed, I’ve done more brand than corporate over the last few months, and it’s been an eye-opener.

What key lesson can each learn from the other? (NB: I’m generalising, clearly.)

Corporate communicators tend (stress: tend) to value knowledge more. They know more about the sectors they operate in. They need to, given that their audiences – investors, regulators and the like – know their stuff. Brand folk can indeed be a bit vacuous in this regard, choosing not to value and accrue deep product and sector knowledge. Instead they focus on short-term attention grabbing, rather than imparting expertise and building relationships over time. Given the nature of present-day content and influencer marketing, this is a mistake. With mountains of content a mouse-click away, consumers often know more than they are given credit for. They may wish to examine a product in detail, learn what others say about it, or determine whether the company in question aligns with their values. Meanwhile, consumers who adore a brand have the means to be its most potent advocates. In both instances, provision of top-tier material and ongoing interaction are what’s needed, not another bloody discount coupon.

Meanwhile, brand people tend (again, I stress: tend) to be more results focused. Corporate communicators can talk for hours about the intricacies of pharma pricing or preferred climate change mitigation mechanisms. However, while wooing analysts – and their bosses – with their know-how, they often fail to think about, let alone measure, whether they are having a genuine impact on awareness, influence or sales. They often act as if metrics were somehow beneath them, arguing that their environments are too complex to measure. Tosh. Given that brand folk don’t have much knowledge to woo their bosses with, they need to impress through results. So they have clear, measurable objectives that all activities stem from. Although I many not agree with some brand folks’ preferred metrics (often short-term awareness and sales rather than long-term preference and advocacy) at least we know whether they’re meeting objectives and they are held accountable.

There you have it: brand folk, do more reading and don’t treat customers like fools; corporate, get off your high horse and determine whether you’re having an impact or just making noise.