Belonging to a business family, a conversation that I would commonly hear is: How much investment has been made in the business and whether the investment has reaped three times return. Today, discussions between CEOs and communication professionals eventually boil down to the same question: What is the return on investment in public relations?
It’s a difficult question because reputation itself is an intangible asset, one that can be influenced but never controlled. Thus, measuring Return on Investment (ROI) by Advertisement Value Estimates (AVE) or other specifications of media output (share of voice, page, headlines, placement, photo, size etc) made a lot of decisions easier, because one could use them to compare apples to oranges. Once you know the ROI, it’s not apples or oranges anymore, it’s all expressed as the growth of money.
However, to continue to measure ROI basis the above methodology is a death knell given the rise of consumerism. Frankly, I am quite often shocked and disturbed that many agencies and corporates still measure ROI on their public relations effort via AVEs or other media output methods.
What public relations can do is influence behaviour, and thus it is imperative that the tools of measurement need to shift from investment to involvement / engagement. To elaborate this: A PR exercise can excite a consumer to enter an apparel store by highlighting the fashion quotient, but whether the consumer purchases anything is dependent on various other propositions like value for money, service delivery by the in-store manager etc. Why isn’t PR effectiveness measured by footfalls rather than through a non-justified sales number?
Millions of us today are digital natives thanks to smartphones/mediapads/laptops. But if the corporate/brand can’t keep the consumer engaged, then the consumer will switch. Studies have proved that engaged customers exhibit positive feelings towards a brand that not only encourages greater brand involvement and interaction, but also cultivates customers as brand advocates. It’s not just about whether your consumers like your brand; it’s about whether they trust you as well. And this trust will come with engagement. I find it amusing to read that a particular celebrity has over million fans on his/her twitter account. What I never read is how many of these fans are consistently engaged by the twitter handle of celebrity. I am sure such data is available, but why isn’t engagement measured.
As we move closer to a world in which global publishing power lies in every person’s pocket, the punishment for failing to listen, engage, anticipate and respond effectively will be severe. The rewards for an organisation that invests in defining and therefore inoculating itself through involvement/engagement will be rich indeed. For example, Cadbury realised that despite having so many fans, only 16 per cent of them ever saw the content that the brand posted on Facebook. The challenge was to increase the engagement among its fans, as well as reaching out to friends of fans and the wider Facebook community. Cadbury built a giant Facebook ‘like’ thumb out of pieces of Dairy Milk. It used teaser ads in the build-up to the event and then live streamed in a studio decorated with user-generated content and photos. The team also responded to user requests and comments in the video. As a result, Cadbury gained 40,000 Facebook fans and more than 350,000 people were actively involved in the campaign. Some fans even left the live feed running for hours on end.
Hence, it is imperative for communication professionals to invest in research, consumer insights, measurement and evaluation so that robust campaigns are developed, the impact of which is measured by Return on Involvement / Engagement and not by investment. Communications professionals (both in agencies and corporates) who continue to measure the impact of financial investment in building reputation, will fall down the rabbit hole, leaving organisations vulnerable and the playing field open for others to define the game or change the rules.
However, the good news for the PR industry today is that it’s much easier to find networks of people who are interested in your message. Communicators should, therefore, engage with their audience, rather than simply gaining visibility for a message.
Girish Huria is the COO at Avian Media. He is responsible for aligning and strengthening operation, drive new business acquisition and ensure growth and profitability.