Monday, March 23

Measuring Communication, Defining Outcomes


Since January, we've outlined several considerations to determine Intent and the execution of intent. But that is only part of the equation. The balance of the definition includes that the return on investment is related to the intent of the communication, the outcome it produces, and the cost to achieve those outcomes.

In social media and public relations (to some degree), there is a propensity to diminish the value of measurement based on the idea that indirect results are difficult to measure. As a result, there is a tendency is misclassify the operators of intent (such as frequency and reach) as outcomes.

Column inches are not really outcomes. Web site hits are not really outcomes. Comment counts are not really outcomes. Links are not really outcomes. Rather, all these things are generally a means to an outcome, publicity included.

“What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself.” — Abraham Lincoln

Never mind that Lincoln wasn't talking about animals. The publicity employed by a skunk is actually very effective, as the outcome it strives for is to be left alone. If it wanted to be a pet, only then could we say it has a public relations problem.

Most companies, of course, do not want to be left alone. Most of them want sales. When we could ask Leo Burnett, he might say that "advertising says to people, 'Here's what we've got. Here's what it will do for you. Here's how to get it.'”

But it's not that simple, not really. People have to know that you exist, care that you have something, and feel confident that they aren't supporting a bad corporate citizen. Of course, there is something else the Burnett quote points to. He did not say that advertising is sales, only that it leads people to where sales occur.

With the exception of online stores and direct response marketing, most advertising, public relations, and communication does not lead directly to sales. It does, however, lead people to seek out a product, include a product among their purchasing decisions, have a favorable opinion about a company, tell other people about it (as you want them to be told), listen to the company when it has news to share, and hundreds of other actionable events and changes of behavior or outcomes from defined publics.

Outcomes are measured by the actions and opinions of a defined public.

The Southwest airlines Ding! widget is one example. As a communication tool, it promises to deliver exclusive offers to a select audience (people who download the widget). Sometimes, these offers change behaviors in that a low fare offer might prompt people to visit a city they didn't consider before or place reservations in advance to a city they intend to visit in the near future.

The number of people who have downloaded the widget defines the reach; the number of sales attributed to the widget defines the outcomes. In 2007, $150 million in sales were directly attributed to the widget.

Naturally, the widget doesn't communicate in a vacuum. Other communication efforts ranging from campy advertising to its blog, all have the intent to distinguish Southwest as being casual, friendly, fun, and focused on lower prices. This intent has served the airlines since 1972. Today, it includes an early adoption of social media.

While the whole of its communication efforts help define the intent and reinforce its brand equity, the return on the widget can be directly tied to ticket sales vs. the cost to develop and promote the widget. Other efforts from other organizations might be measured differently.

For example, if an organization wanted to expand its engagement with a specific demographic and sent out a news release, then the measure of that news release might be the response from that demographic rather than the frequency or reach of the publications that ran the story. (It might also be a change in sentiment by the demographic.) How people beyond the demographic respond to the story might also be valid, but ancillary to the real measurement.

In the weeks ahead, we'll present what might be included to determine the cost to produce such outcomes. But before I did, I thought it was important to provide a baseline of what an outcome is and what it is not.

Specifically, an outcome is an actionable event that ranges from indirect such as a change in opinion to direct such as sales when confined to a specific offer. In other words, the outcome is what we do when we learn the skunk has a potent spray, assuming we are even in the skunks demographic.

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