The Purpose of Measurement

02.15.2012 | Joni Kirk

I recently read the book “How to Measure Anything,” by Douglas W. Hubbard. As the title infers, the book makes the bold assertion that anything can be measured.

In the context of public relations, measurement is significant. On the Communiqué PR blog, we have addressed topics such as Measuring the Value of PR, Measuring ROI in Social Media, Measuring Media Relations Takes a Multifaceted Approach and Determining Your Share of Voice. Measurement is important because it informs decisions.

But before incorporating measurement into your PR approach, it’s essential to note two things about measurement. First, measurement doesn’t have to be 100-percent accurate; rather, it’s a quantitatively expressed reduction in uncertainty. You may not know how many people actually read what you’ve written on your Twitter account, but you can determine how many people are followers, how many are sharing your tweets and how many send you direct messages. This information reduces any uncertainty you may have about the number of people who may be reading your content.

Second, if you’re trying to measure something, there should be some expected outcome from measuring it. You shouldn’t measure something for the sake of measurement. For example, if you want to measure how effective a particular strategy is, you probably want to do so to know if you should continue with that given strategy.

Prior to measuring something, asking yourself the following five questions will help you determine exactly what you are talking about and why you care about it.

1. What is the decision this measurement is supposed to support?

2. What is the definition of the thing being measured in terms of observable consequences? For example, if you want to talk about “engagement” in social media, what specifically does it mean? Does it mean interactions per person per month? Does it mean “likes,” “shares” or “comments” on Facebook? And what decisions depend on that measurement of engagement?

3. How, exactly, does this thing matter to the decision being asked? Using the example noted above, why does engagement matter to your specific social media efforts? Will the measurement information you glean change the outcome of a particular strategy?

4. How much do you know about it now (i.e., what is your current level of uncertainty)?

5. What is the value of additional information?

The first three questions define the need for measurement. As Hubbard notes, “If a measurement matters at all, it is because it must have some conceivable effect on decisions and behavior. If we can’t identify a decision that could be affected by a proposed measure and how it could change those decisions, then the measurement simply has no value.”

In public relations, we like to talk about “readership.” But to measure readership (such as the readership of a company blog or newsletter), we really need to define what we mean by “readership” in the first place. Does this entail the number of people subscribed? Is this the number of people who click on a link? Does clicking on a link mean they read something? And why specifically are we trying to understand how many readers something has? What decision will be based on us obtaining this measurement? These questions and others should help inform your business decisions.

Question no. 4 is essential to helping you understand what you currently do know about something. As Hubbard notes, “The lack of having an exact number is not the same as knowing nothing.” Rather, he suggests that your answer have a 90-percent confidence level that the correct answer is within a particular range.

For example, if someone asked how many inches long a business card is, you wouldn’t necessarily provide its exact dimensions. You’d note that it was greater than two inches, but less than five inches. So you have a 90-percent confidence level that the exact length of the card is between those two numbers. The goal is not to have a “right” answer, but rather remove uncertainty. If you aren’t sure of something, widen your range.

Back to the readership question: You could guess that it’s between 1 and 5,000 readers. If a readership of 5,000 seems like an extreme stretch for the item in question, you at least know you have an upper limit, and it will help you try to narrow down the range. On the lower end of the range, you could measure click-throughs to determine that approximately 2,500 people open the email. So you would be 90-percent certain that readership includes a range of 2,500-5,000 readers. If you feel that not all of the 2,500 click-throughs actually read the email, you could broaden your range slightly to account for that difference, making it a range of 2,000 to 5,000.

Finally, question no.5 should help you determine if there truly is value in obtaining additional information. For example, if you measure your company’s blog or newsletter readership, discover it’s extremely low, but don’t do anything about it, the measurement is then an exercise in futility. If no value is to be added, then don’t proceed with the measurement. Alternately, you could determine that readership is higher than expected, which will support a decision to continue producing the content.

As you can see, measurement involves a high degree of strategic thinking before even attempting to measure something. Once you’ve determined specifically what you’re after and how it will be useful for your business and communications objectives, Hubbard has a great five-step process (he calls this the “Applied Information Economics” method) to help you approach improving assessment. Giving extra thought to measurement will help you provide more meaningful information to help shape business decisions, and in turn provide more valuable service to your clients.

 Joni Kirk


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