It’s time to end the tyranny of impressions

Edelman's Catherine Yuile and Sophie Nadeau ask why earned media measurement hasn't evolved with platforms.
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By Catherine Yuile and Sophie Nadeau

The world of journalism and media has changed more in the past five years than in the past 50. What’s surprising is that, despite this sea change, public relations and marketing professionals are still thinking about measuring our work in media like it’s 1995. We still rely on antiquated metrics like reach and impressions, knowing they are relatively meaningless and don’t offer a clear connection to business value. These big numbers are like catnip for communicators; they get us wild-eyed about the millions of lives we think we are changing.

Impressions are, at best, one measure of the potential interaction between an audience and a piece of content. In other words, it estimates the largest potential audience that a piece of content could have reached, based on the publication or website’s total third-party audience numbers. What it doesn’t tell you is whether the audience noticed, read or digested the content.

True views and reach numbers are at least three orders of magnitude smaller than traditional estimated impressions. For example, instead of estimated millions of impressions for a Globe & Mail article, the real number of article views would be closer to thousands and, at best, tens of thousands in reach per article. Why? Because of new technology that leverages unique audience identification measures and gets at more precise reach with actual article views. And going beyond reach, we are seeing more and more clients wanting to measure their earned content’s actual impact. Did it influence some type of change in audience perceptions or behaviour?

We need to look at measurement differently and calculate true reach and impressions of earned coverage the same way we do for digital and paid media work. The technology to do this is here. We’ve lost that excuse. The numbers may not be as lofty (and that may make some of us uncomfortable), but they will lead to better, more impactful content.

Once clients are in the middle of conversations that are important to Canadians, PR agencies arm them with insights to ensure they show up the right way, providing a helpful perspective or relevant content that connects Canadians with their business in a meaningful way. That’s what drives business value, and that’s what we need to measure.

That is why we encourage our clients to focus on metrics that do a better job of linking communications to tangible business outcomes. These include coverage quality, engagement, share of voice, message sentiment and impact. We need to understand if our clients are moving the needle. Are you in the middle of what Canadians are talking about? Are they sharing your news and your point of view?

This form of measurement is especially important for clients that are interested in playing the long game and promoting, protecting and evolving their brand over time. It arms clients with both a fact-checked baseline and the opportunity to drive clear ambition.

From where we sit, it seems we are nearing a tipping point in measurement. Our clients are asking for quality, not quantity, when it comes to media relations results (and metrics that measure that quality). What’s driving that shift? The media ecosystem feels like a noisy kitchen party; it’s impossible to get a word in edgewise. This is made worse by news cycles that travel at the speed of Twitter. In this chaotic environment, our clients (rightly) want to know if their communications efforts are making a difference.

There’s no escaping the growing complexity of the media ecosystem. The volume and velocity of content flowing through newsrooms, social media, search and owned channels is not going to slow down. We need to work harder at making sense of things. This starts with looking at measurement differently and letting go of old ways.

Catherine Yuile is EVP of insights and analytics and Sophie Nadeau is national media lead at Edelman Canada.