You Can't Quantify Everything

Measuring, or Not, the Value of PR

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Eric Webber Eric Webber
In a recent issue of Ad Age, Jack Neff wrote about some interesting developments in the area of measuring advertising effectiveness. No need to recap it; you can read it here.

I almost missed it because I'm building up immunity to claims of the latest, most definitive systems for measuring such things. They seem to be everywhere, like golf magazines that trumpet yet another cure for the slice in every issue. Or Cosmo's monthly "greatest sex tip you'll ever read." I've never been helped appreciably by either of them, by the way.

I'm not saying there's nothing to any of the claims. In fact, I try as much as anyone to quantify what I can. But it's rarely very easy or accurate, especially in the PR business, where measurement is even murkier than on the ad side.

And I think we (on the agency side) are putting ourselves into difficult positions by not pushing back some on the notion that everything must be quantifiable. Clients need to back off their "quantify everything" mantra and accept that intuition and gut feeling are a form of measurement, too.

Are we are so fearful of losing business that we'll spend time and effort searching for some formula to placate a client, when what we really need to do is to reach a better understanding about what is and isn't measurable? And why the hard-to-measure things are still very important even though they are, well, hard to measure?

We're in the storytelling business, so I'll tell you a story that I think serves as a good case in terms of the difficulty of measuring value. It's also, I think, an interesting example of how success can (or can't) be measured, depending on which side you're on.

Town for sale
One of my partners, Bryan, has a friend who owns a town. Sort of a town, anyway, out in the Texas Hill Country. Albert, Texas. Founded in 1880 by a man who was later killed in a shootout.

Besides that very Texas-y history, there's a house, a tavern, a 100-year-old dance hall, peach and pecan orchards, a creek and the elementary school where President Lyndon B. Johnson attended the first grade.

The friend wanted to sell the town, and thought a little publicity would find a buyer for the unique parcel.

"Put it on eBay," said Bryan.

"Who would buy a town on eBay?" asked the owner.

"No one," I told him. But imagine the headlines. "Historic Town for Sale on EBay." I could work with that.

And sure enough, starting with the Associated Press, the story took off. The wire story led to requests for interviews from across the U.S. and several other countries. TV stations picked it up, and not just in Texas.

We placed a few web stories, but eBay enthusiasts did most of the work in that medium, spreading the story to hundreds of sites.

The expense side of the ledger was ridiculously small. A few hours of time and less than $50 in eBay fees.

And what about the other side? What was it worth? You could use the simplest methods, like the old chestnut of taking the advertising space equivalent and multiplying it by some variable that's supposed to represent the third-party endorsement power of editorial over paid space. Even using a conservative multiplier, it would mean that we generated somewhere around $2 million worth of publicity.

But here's where it gets tricky. No one bought the town. So where I might fairly claim that the work resulted in $2 million worth of PR value, the owner could counter that it was worth nothing. He's right where he started.

Between $0 and $2,000,000. That's a pretty imprecise measurement.

Yeah, I know, I'm oversimplifying. There are other factors, like maybe the price was too high. Or the handful of buyers for a unique product like this don't like peaches. Or LBJ.

I'm only trying to make a point: We can create whatever matrices or formulas or paradigms or whatever, but we can't get away from the fact that this is a sometimes ambiguous business when it comes to measuring value, and we shouldn't be afraid of that.

So I'm turning to you, dear readers, to help out and offer up what you think. Was this particular case ultimately a success or failure? And what was the value? Tell me, please, how much you think I'm really worth. No, wait. You can skip that last part. Discuss amongst yourselves and get back to me.
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