Public Relations Tactics

The big shift: Moving from impressions to engagement

April 29, 2011

One of the biggest challenges facing today’s communication leaders is how to navigate the shifting media landscape. Most have embraced or at least accepted the emergence of digital and social media, and now they’re asking critical questions about how they should evaluate this work and how it measures up against traditional media efforts.

The good news is that marketers and communications have a variety of metrics available. For traditional media, it has become standard practice for communicators to track reach, share of voice, key messages and themes, sentiment, third-party quotes, etc. Social media is easier thanks to online tools and open interfaces. Real-time data tells us how people consume and share content, how people participate in communities, how people engage with brands and what actions they take.

So, what should communication leaders do with all these metrics? Can they integrate online and offline data into a more holistic view? If so, then how do they fit together?

Recommendation #1: Get “inline” with your analytics.

The simple answer is yes, companies should take an “inline” view of the world. Customers don’t strictly separate their interactions by channel any more than they neatly align into traditional demographics.

We encourage clients to integrate their analytics across multiple media channels, marketing disciplines and data sources. Smart brands learn from every interaction, and corporate leaders realize that reputations can be won or lost instantly — regardless of where the conversation starts. The most valuable insight often comes from the intersection of data across channels or disciplines.

This is the hard part: Marketing and communications are in the midst of a major transformation from an impressions-dominated world to an engagement-driven future.  The impressions discipline focused on reaching many people efficiently through an orchestrated mix of mass media and direct marketing, typically in one-way broadcasts. Engagement rethinks both the mix and the approach, focusing more on dialogue, small groups, storytelling, interactivity and narrowcast media.

From a measurement standpoint, this gets tricky. Mixing impressions and engagement data can be confusing or distracting if you’re not careful. For example, how do you compare a USA Today print story to a WSJ.com online piece to an industry blog post to five customer tweets?  They’re obviously different media types, each of which people consume and share differently, and each of which has a different impact on attitudes and behavior.

Recommendation #2:  Track engagement and impressions in parallel.

At the risk of oversimplifying, we recommend that clients expand their mindset to track impressions and engagement together.  The first is still a valuable measure of reach, whether it’s traditional, digital and/or social media.  While some would argue for ditching impressions altogether, the pragmatic reality is that impressions and CPM are a common language across marketing disciplines and that integration value is important to maintain.

Engagement data is even more critical and needs to be elevated. Most communicators know that certain ideas, stories and campaigns will engage some people more than others. Communicators see and feel it every day — just listen to radio call-in shows — but it’s hard to quantify offline.  This isn’t the case online, where marketers are awash in data (much of it is free) that tells them how many people visited their site, how long people watched a YouTube video, how many people signed up to “follow” or “friend” you — and in some cases, how many people bought how much of your stuff online.

Recommendation #3: Contextualize.

The basic metrics for impressions and engagement are pretty common. Whether it’s “print impressions,”  “unique visitors” or “time spent on site,” you can track each with some consistency regardless of what organization you represent. What will vary is which metrics matter most, and how to track the data in the context of your organization’s engagement flow.

For example, if you’re targeting consumers, then USA Today (3.3 million daily readers) might be valuable to you because of the audience and media context within which it appears. If you’re targeting business leaders, then  WSJ.com (12 million monthly readers) is probably more beneficial in reaching your broad audience.  The industry blog (10,000 daily readers) might be a more targeted way to reach specific decision-makers who would buy your company’s product.

Even in an impressions world, this example reinforces a need to go beyond total numbers to focus on targeted impressions that reach the right audiences.

Now let’s add engagement into the mix. Generally speaking, people consume daily newspapers in a passive way with limited engagement.  While newspapers certainly impact opinions and behaviors, that impact is hard to track and fragmented across a broad audience.  With the WSJ.com piece, by contrast, advocates and detractors alike can easily share it via email, blogs and Twitter.  The industry blog might only have 10,000 readers, but they might be “the right 10,000” — and if it’s a good blog, then they’re actively sharing, debating and commenting on the post, which extends the reach through trusted peers and leads to even more engagement.

You may need to adjust the scale of your metrics.

Based on our experience, companies often need to re-think the scale of their metrics as they transition from impressions to engagement (or both in parallel). Impressions usually come in bulk, and many marketers are hooked on big impressions numbers and low CPMs. Some will balk at shifting time and resources from mainstream media to more targeted conversations and narrowly defined communities.

More important, communication leaders will need to re-train their executives and marketers to think differently about how they evaluate communications.  They will need to embrace new metrics and partner with sales leaders and Web teams to connect the data — and ultimately determine what matters most in the context of their business.  That’s when measurement will really pay off to drive new behaviors, investments and outcomes for the organization and its stakeholders.

Tim Marklein
Tim Marklein leads Weber Shandwick’s global analytics practice. He is an elected member of the Institute for PR’s Measurement Commission and actively contributed to the development of the “Barcelona Principles” for PR measurement.

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