Friday, September 12, 2008

PR Measurement is giving me a headache...

I've spent most of my career in marketing and lately have been concentrating on PR, which I manage for a publicly-traded company.

To say that PR and the media business have changed in the last few years is a bit like saying Bill Gates is comfortably well-off, or Neil Armstrong is a seasoned traveler, or Sarah Palin is low key; it's really hard to overstate the turmoil in the media business, and as a consequence the upheavals in PR (for a great take on how this has impacted tech publishing, see Tom Steinert-Thelkeld's blog).

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the media measurement business. I'm old enough to remember when clips really were clips: pieces of newsprint cut-out from a magazine or newspaper by some exceedingly patient, far-off reader, then painstakingly collated, annotated and mailed to me in a big bulging brown envelope. Today, almost all the news is online and much of it doesn't come from a traditional news outlet, yet most media metrics and coverage monitoring still function as if in an ink-smudged era.

For sure there's a bunch of new companies that have addressed the new media reality, and focused on social networks and brand management: Biz360, Cymfony, BuzzLogic, Vocus and RatePoint are some examples. They all essentially follow the same formula of aggregating digital news using some kind of search and filter system (you can still get the pieces of paper if you need them, but each little clip will cost you more than the newsstand price of the whole publication). The algorithms at the heart of these systems are usually based on fixed keywords (company name, ticker symbol, product names, etc.) then some additional processing based on either rudimentary rules of grammar and syntax or or a series of logical operations, and is often called natural language processing (NLP), since it tries to emulate how humans read and understand text. The results, based on my limited experiences, range from the amazing to the bizarre, and most systems need human intervention to get at subtle things like tone.

In an attempt to add value and differentiate themselves from free services like Google News, these companies also have a vast array of reports and dashboards that slice and dice data to show share-of-voice, on target messaging, competitive coverage, salience and on and on. Again, result may vary from those advertised...

Pricing does not seem to vary much: all cater to a similar audience of complex multinationals, usually in the financial services, pharma, or legal businesses, and costs are high. Or at least they seem high to me.

This complexity has spawned a lot of blogs. K.D. Paines is excellent on PR measurement, although recent posts suggest a level of complexity in getting truly comprehensive metrics that is daunting and might account for the high costs. Ed Moed has a lot of good stuff to say, too (although Ed, I think “What's so funny...” was written by Nick Lowe), and intelligent measurement has a lot to say about social media.

But at the end of the day I get a headache. It should be easy. It should be straightforward. It should be inexpensive. And it isn't. If anyone has ideas on how to crack the PR measurement problem, let me know.