Politicians use statistics in the same way that a drunk uses lamp-posts—for support rather than illumination.

Alan Lang’s quote, more than 100 years old, can be equally applied for PR professionals.

It can be challenging for PR experts to prove that their work is bringing value to the client, and we’re not making it any easier for ourselves when we misrepresent the value of some metrics. This is, unfortunately, still a widespread practice in the field of public relations. There are three numbers which most frequently get thrown around without proper context:  

  • Total number of mentions, eg: More than 100 media outlets covered the campaign, so it means it’s successful
  • Social engagement, eg: We had more than 10,000 shares on social media, so the campaign is doing well
  • Reach (impressions), eg. We reached 1,000,000 unique people – it’s an outstanding result

The problem arises when these numbers are not used as parts of the PR report, but as the ultimate proof that your campaign was successful. It happens more often than you think – the judges in industry competitions are not happy about it. They don’t like it when followers or impressions are provided as results.

Reach, engagement, and publicity volume are not goals, but ways to measure activities you did in order to produce a desired outcome.

Hundreds of media outlets may be talking about your event, but if nobody shows up, you failed to achieve your goal of having a sold-out venue. A book full of press clippings won’t satisfy your boss or client.

You might get 30.000 shares of your witty joke on Twitter, but that doesn’t mean you’ve improved your reputation among your target audience.

What can your total number of mentions really tell you?

Your total number of mentions is relevant only when you exactly know how it contributes to your PR goals. In some cases, the number can be an indicator that things are going well, while for others it doesn’t mean anything.  

For example, do you want to spread awareness about your product? An increase in the number of mentions can indicate that you are doing something right. But until you go deeper into themes, issues, and messages, you won’t know for sure.

There is also no magic threshold that says that 60 media placements is bad, but 61 is good. Depending on your goal, it can be better to have ten journalists writing about you than having a hundred. Placing 99 stories about your truck driving company into health and lifestyle magazines can sometimes make sense, but 99% of the time is a complete waste of the time.

One of our clients is a non-profit that motioned for a certain health bill to be implemented. They did not get a lot of outlets to cover their story, but were able to get into all the press consumed by the decision-makers. If you were one of them, you’d open a newspaper or switch to your favourite TV channel or go to Facebook and you’d be convinced that the whole country is talking about the health bill.

Do their low numbers mean anything? Or is the implementation of the bill the only goal that matters in this case?

What can your social media engagement numbers reveal?

Similar to mentions, social media engagement numbers should be looked at primarily for research purposes, or for social intelligence.

Observe what your audience is saying about you, rather than just talking about the number of likes, shares, and retweets.

You can write a funny tweet will get you 30,000 shares, but it is only successful if that tweet is a part of your overall PR strategy, and you know what message you want your audience to receive. And not all engagement is created equal: a like is not an endorsement, and comments or praise are more valuable than the reply to a Facebook contest.

Instead, try to find answers to these questions:

  1. What type of content does my audience prefer? Do they engage more with pictures, video, or blogs? Why?
  2. What is the ratio of likes to comments?  
  3. Which channels are they using more to talk about my brand – Twitter, or LinkedIn?
  4. What are the messages I am sending with my most popular posts? Do they portray an image of the company I want?
  5. How many people are the first to initiate a conversation?
  6. What are the issues they most frequently discuss?  
  7. How many people are mentioning my brand on social media behind my back, like in comments on other pages, tweets or Instagram pictures of my product?
  8. What is the sentiment of these mentions?
  9. Who are my top users – people who talk about my brand the most? What issues they discuss?
  10. What happens as a result of these engagements? Does my website traffic increase? Do I get more leads, do sales numbers increase?

And a bonus one:

Does anyone but members of my company use the corporate #hashtag?

Are impressions a useful metric at all?

Impressions are a useful to a point. The biggest cause of their bad reputation is that they are often presented as end results, not only in the PR industry, but also in marketing. 

Mediatoolkit has reach (impression) estimates. We have developed an algorithm that includes more than just website visits to predict how many people saw the mention it question. It is based on a lot of other things, such as social engagement around the mention, the mention’s position in the text, whether the keyword was mentioned more than once, context, and more.

In short, we can give you a good estimate of how many people could have been exposed to a message. However, we are not wizards – we cannot guarantee that these people have actually read and remembered your message.

Even when you can prove that 1,231,453 people saw your story on a website, you can’t guarantee that this story has made an actual impact on them.

The only thing that the number of impressions can guarantee is that a million people could have been exposed to your message, not that they have actually remembered it.

More impressions does increase the chance that your message was seen by more people, but it should be taken as that – just an indicator that there was potential. It is the end results of those one million impressions that count.