An image illustrating the concept of a review of communications measurement tools.

For all the creativity, innovation, and change that the year 2020 has brought to our lives, things in the measurement world, especially communications measurement tools, haven’t changed that much — with a few exciting exceptions. Sure, our events have all gone virtual, and that’s made it easier to measure attendance and engagement. But for the most part the virtual events were not truly innovative, just online versions of the IRL thing.

Purpose-built vs. garbage soup

To adapt to our current pandemic world, most of the legacy measurement vendors are taking whatever technology they have on hand and adding some marketing spin to make it appealing to a more online, work-from-home market.

Battleships and garbage soup

It reminds me of what we used to call “garbage soup.” When I was growing up, every Sunday evening after a weekend of entertaining friends and family (remember what that was like?), my mother would take all the various leftover salads, vegetables, and other things in the fridge, throw them in a blender with a lot of curry and add some Campbell’s Cream of Shrimp soup. The result was a medley that we’d eat all week. It was delicious, but we still referred to it as “garbage soup.”

Campbell's® Cream of Shrimp Soup

Some of the bigger measurement vendors seem to be taking the garbage soup approach. Except that instead of curry, they add terms like “AI” and “integrated,” and throw in some snazzy graphics and marketing spin. Rather than innovate, they are rearranging their ingredients.

The reason isn’t complicated. All these legacy measurement companies (and I know, because I used to own two of them) have a lot of sunk costs in existing technology and the customer comfort that comes with using a product for years. So getting them to change and adopt new technologies is like turning a battleship around using wind power. Their answer is to either buy another company and throw its technology into the mix, or spin off the ones that don’t fit. But, as I learned as a kid, it’s not possible to “unmix” a soup.

Stealth fighter jets

In contrast, the measurement equivalent of stealth fighter jets are strafing holes in the battleships’ markets. These younger, smaller upstarts — like FullIntelTalkwalkerSignalAI, and Muck Rack — are rethinking the entire media monitoring/measurement process, and genuinely using AI to solve real customer problems. More importantly, they’re actually listening to the market and coming up with solutions to the new and unexpected problems communications professionals are facing in COVID times.

Ever since I started in the measurement business 30 years ago, people have been asking me to “keep them informed about this issue.” And “this issue” meant whatever issue happened to be top of mind with the CEO or the Board of Directors. The problem back then was that if I searched on something like “Y2K,” it would take forever. And I’d be left with a large pile of garbage that nothing was going to turn into edible soup.

The stealth fighters of today have solved that problem. You can tell a system to track something like COVID and specify that you only want stories that relate to your specific brand, industry, or solution. And there are systems out there that will tell you exactly what questions people ask about the issue, so you know how to position your solution. And it all happens in real time.

The sales process is changing: beware of heavy sales and light service

The changes aren’t just in the product offerings, they are also in how people shop and how vendors sell. As more and more organizations realize the need for good measurement and monitoring, they’re approaching the search for a measurement vendor the way I searched for my new freezer. I checked Consumer ReportsWirecutter, and every other review site, looked at the brands with the best ratings, read every customer review, then used Google Shopping to find the cheapest price.

Today’s measurement consumer is doing similar product research. They ignore sales calls, ask their peers for advice, read a lot of “guides,” listen to the experience of others, and then sign up for a free trial for the one or two vendors that are most frequently recommended.

And, while customers look for easy-to-use solutions, platforms are getting more complicated. I’m one of those “call a friend” folks; I get a lot of requests for recommendations and advice. What I’m hearing is the need for some very specific solutions, not an entire battleship of services. Crisis alerts, issues management, policy maker tracking, and internal communications metrics are on everyone’s wish list. But the fancy graphics? Eh, not so much.

At the same time, salespeople, driven by the need to make numbers that look good to investors, are becoming more aggressive. Gone is the concept of “solution selling” and “partnerships.” It’s all about signing a contract.

These days there are at least half a dozen major measurement vendors who are known more for heavy-handed sales than for good service. Last week, in response to a simple query about whether people would recommend a certain major measurement vendor, dozens of PR professionals vented their annoyance with overly aggressive salespeople, unethical behavior, and warnings about the need to “lawyer up” if you signed a contract.

Here’s a sample of what customers are saying these days:

— “Personally, I would avoid them at all costs. In my experience they are unscrupulous and use aggressive and abrasive sales tactics.”

“They refused to take ‘No’ for an answer, despite me informing them that I signed with a (more expensive) competitor. The salesperson was not polite about it. The nerve…

“I was so put off by their sales tactics — it was especially galling at the beginning of the COVID crisis — that I won’t work with them.”

“Reality is that not one of these services does it all and the people selling don’t necessarily understand the nuances of PR.”

“I found their platform to be clunky and they were always trying to upsell me.

“As soon as the sale was closed the customer service really dropped off. Reports we contracted for didn’t arrive on time. My social media manager was left in the dark from a training aspect as she tried to get up to speed on the software.”

We’re not in a business where you can order up the right product on Amazon prime. What COVID and quarantine have taught us is that we want measurement solutions that include relationships and empathy. Not just a salesperson whose job is done once they get you to sign. Readers who are considering signing with any measurement vendor are advised to ask current and previous clients about their experiences, and adjust their expectations accordingly. (Vendor names have been intentionally omitted, but if you want to chat about who’s dong what, feel free to get in touch:

All that having been said, there are some bright spots on the horizon…

AI helps solve your crisis

The biggest innovation that we’ve seen recently started more than a year ago at the 2019 Summit on the Future of Communications Measurement, when I poo-pooed the notion that AI would actually prove useful to PR in 2020. Boy was I wrong!

FullIntel CEO Gaugarin Oliver took me up on my challenge. Last spring we worked with crisis guru Texas A&M Professor W. Timothy Coombs on a research project to test whether AI could in fact:

  • Predict a crisis about to happen, and
  • Tell you the best way to deal with it.

The test worked and now CapeStart, Gaugarin Oliver’s technology company, has introduced its AI-enhanced crisis solution. This product automatically detects potential or emerging crises in real-time. It then suggests the best response, based on how many days it will take for public and media sentiment to return to neutral. You can read CapeStart’s origin story here.

Better audience definition on the horizon?

Cision has been talking about attribution and audience level data since at least 2018. I have yet to speak to anyone who is using it effectively. Yes, better definition of reach is a good thing. And their article-level approach theoretically tells you the demographics of that great article you placed. And sure, theoretically you could use that data to rank your coverage from most targeted to least to determine where you should pitch your next story. Maybe.

But while Cision and the other legacy firms are still talking about “articles,” the stealth fighter crowd is tracking what people are saying about the issues that might derail your entire PR plan. And they’re telling you who those individuals are.

One of the lessons of these times is to meet people where they are. One way to do that is to figure out who is already interested enough in what you say to follow you in social media. That’s what platforms like Followerwonk do. Their analyses will tell you exactly what people are interested in and talking about. It’s this century’s version of the old media contact list.

The problem is that many of the solutions depend on third party cookies, but that very concept is on life supportNielsen’s recently announced solution assigns readers unique IDs so they can be tracked across various media. But that has yet to be rolled out, tested, and proven to be acceptable to all the various platforms. Good luck with that.

What really matters is: Can they find you?

Other than toilet paper and disinfectant, one of the most important necessities of 2020 is a good Google Search rank. Getting found in the clutter today is paramount. We all spent most of 2020 sitting in front of a computer googling for solutions to problems or asking Siri to find answers. The only way your brand can be found as a solution to a problem is if you actually show up in search results.

That’s where another one of the stealth fighter crowd comes in: AnswerThePublic. AnswerThePublic tells you not just what people are searching for but how they are asking the questions. We know that the best way to get someone to pay attention to what you have today is to listen to them and speak to them in their language. AnswerThePublic enables you to do exactly that. By listening to how people are asking about an issue or a problem, you can better craft your message to reach the person whose problems you can solve. ∞

Illustration based on an image by Bruno Henrique from Pixabay.

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