A long time ago, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and press releases were still sent through fax machines, it was easy to quantify the value of earned media coverage. The universe of influential media was exponentially smaller than it is today, and the number of readers, viewers, and listeners for each outlet was easily accessible to anyone who wanted to know. If the New York Times or CBS Evening News covered your product, you could look up the number of audiences, high-five your colleagues about the great placement, and call it a day.
But the dawn of the digital age and the social media revolution that followed have radically transformed not just how we consume media but how that consumption is tracked, valued, and understood. There are now more ways to measure earned media consumption than there have ever been, giving publicists an ever more complex set of metrics to evaluate the impact of their work. But at the same time, many of these new measurements are either proprietary or calculated by third-party entities through a variety of sometimes dubious methodologies. All of which makes it harder than ever to answer the timeless question: how many people actually read this stuff?
Fortunately, all these changes don’t mean that it’s impossible to track earned media value. On the contrary, some savvy digital discernment can unlock the metrics of the new media landscape and provide a deeper understanding of your earned media coverage than ever before. Here are a few handy tips to help you read between the lines of new media metrics:
1. ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
It used to be the case that when you opened up a newspaper and saw your product in print, that would be the end of the story. Now it’s just the beginning. A smart publicist will know to ask the right set of questions about the many different platforms on which a placement might appear, and will factor that into her understanding of the placement’s overall value. Sure, it looks great in print (or on television), but did the story show up online? If so, did it appear prominently on the outlet’s homepage, or was it buried in some obscure corner of the site? Did the outlet share it on social media, and how many likes/shares/comments did it get? Has the story been cited on any other notable outlets? Was it syndicated? Does the outlet have any sister websites that might have reposted the story? Did those websites share it on their social platforms? And so on…
2. CHECK THE FORMULA
The most common industry metric for measuring the reach of online coverage is Unique Monthly Visitorship (UMV). In layman’s terms, this means the average number of unique IP addresses that are used to sign on to a website each month. Websites like Siteworth, Compete, Alexa, and Cision all purport to offer infallible directories of outlets’ latest UMVs, implying that these figures are as easily verifiable as names in a phone book. But here’s the thing: since none of these tracking services have direct, firsthand access to sites’ precise UMV statistics, they need to resort to a range of secondary data that are fed into a formula to calculate a “best guess” at monthly visitorship. And since each service uses a different formula to make these calculations—Cision, for example, puts more weight on social shares than Compete does—UMVs can often vary significantly depending on where you look. That doesn’t mean these numbers are necessarily inaccurate relative to a site’s actual UMV count, but it’s important to know what formula is being used to make these calculations.
3. THINK LIKE AN ADVERTISER
While media outlets want publicists (and everyone, really) to think of them as important and influential, the audience they’re most interested in impressing is potential advertisers. Unlike the nebulous world of earned media placements, paid media are generally a straightforward, dollars-and-cents transaction: the advertiser pays for a certain amount of print, broadcast, or online real estate, and in exchange he gets the assurance of knowing that his advertisement is reaching a specific number of eyes, ears, and wallets. With money on the line, media outlets tend to be a bit more forthcoming about their audience statistics than they are with the general public; as a result, the media kits that outlets supply to advertisers can usually be counted on to provide a (mostly) accurate depiction of how many people are reading, clicking, or tuning in. But you don’t have to be an advertiser to get your hands on these handy documents: they’re usually free to download from an outlet’s website, and if not they can be easily procured by a polite phone call or email to the publication’s business department.
4. NUMBERS AREN’T (QUITE) EVERYTHING
Another lesson that publicists can learn from advertisers is to think more deeply about the geography and demographics behind their audience statistics. There’s no disputing the value of a widely read media placement in a national consumer outlet, but depending on your public relations goals it may be nearly as impactful to secure coverage in a lower-reach outlet that is laser-focused on your target audience. For example, if you’re trying to increase regional engagement at an organization based in Seattle, you still want that great USA Today story and its robust nationwide readership—but you should be just as excited to get coverage in the Seattle Times, which reaches less than one tenth of USA Today’s audience but is still the most widely read newspaper in the Pacific Northwest. When you’re flipping through those media kits (see above), be sure to read beyond the overall audience numbers into the more granular data about who—and where—the audiences are, then factor this into your evaluation of the numbers themselves.
5. KNOW WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW
Let’s be honest: even if you follow the above suggestions, there will always be a host of metrics that are likely to remain inaccessible to even the savviest media pro. Step into any news organization’s inner sanctum, and you’ll be acquainted with a constellation of ultra-granular metrics that make UMVs seem like child’s play. Major newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post monitor every single thing that happens on their online platforms: not just the simple stuff like clicks and shares, but metrics you might not even realize were trackable, like the speed at which a story is scrolled through; the geographic vicinity of clicks for each headline; and in some cases, even the reader’s subsequent online activities once she leaves the site. Short of going undercover as a digital publishing executive, there’s not much that a publicist can do to track down these mysterious mini-metrics, which media organizations understandably keep close to the vest. But knowing that you’ll only ever see part of the whole picture when it comes to earned media metrics means it’s even more important to make that partial view as clear and precise as possible.