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A while back, a PR flack from Manhattan Beach, California penned a white paper promoting Ad Value Equivalency (AVE) and declared his own “Manhattan Beach Principles” should replace the Barcelona Principles.

Yup…one guy on a beach challenged a set of mandates for measurement of PR agreed to by every major industry association, Fortune 500 companies, and their agencies. The main reason anyone paid attention to it was that his column ran in Forbes. The ultimate irony, of course, is that one story has generated hundreds of column inches full of invective against the author (and in general —  disproving, disparaging and condemning the Manhattan Beach Principles).

The premise of the Manhattan Beach Principles is that PR is worth 5 times what advertising is worth due to its greater credibility. This may sound fine and dandy; however, there is absolutely no proof that this statement is true. The closest thing to an actual factual citation in his column is a non-public study that was conducted during the pre-Twitter era.

There IS, however, new data that proves exactly the opposite. Thanks to an exhaustive study by Marianne Eisenmann and Julie O’Neil, there is now further proof that “there is no difference in perceived credibility based upon exposure to traditional advertising versus a news story.”

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O’Neil and Eisenmann

In their research paper, “How Changing Media Formats Impact Credibility and Drive Consumer Action,” O’Neil and Eisenmann built on earlier studies that had basically shown the same thing. But this time around, they expanded the scope of their research to include all 4 forms of modern media: Paid, Owned, Earned, and Shared.  They asked 1,500 respondents recruited from a consumer panel to report on their levels of trust with various sources. Respondents were asked about 5 different media sources:

  1. Traditional news story
  2. Independent blog
  3. Company blog
  4. Traditional advertisement
  5. Native advertisement

To see if the nature of the product made a difference, they were both given a high-involvement product (a fictitious $399 smartphone) vs. a low-involvement product (a $7 compact fluorescent light bulb). All brand names and descriptions were factious in order to eliminate bias.

The various media content was created by a professional communications’ agency. Each respondent was given up to 7 minutes to read every story, post, and ad. After being exposed to the stimuli, respondents were asked about:

  • Awareness — how much did they really absorb about the product?
  • Knowledge — did they agree or disagree with basic facts about the product?
  • Interest  (on a scale from 1 to 5)
  • Purchase intent
  • Word of mouth
  • Credibility

What O’Neil and Eisenmann found, and the major takeaway for communications professionals, is that consumers tend to consult many different types of media when making a purchase decision (regardless of product’s price). Specifically, consumers spend the most time consulting product reviews written online by other consumers, followed by consulting the company website, and company newsletter or blog (however, they spent roughly the same amount of time looking at ads and news stories).

In terms of media that they trust to provide accurate and unbiased information for routine product decisions, there was little difference between the sources. An online product review written by another consumer was seen as most trustworthy. For the more important (expensive) products online product review are still rated the highest, and native ads were rated as the least trustworthy.

And to put the final kibosh on the Manhattan Beach multiplier, when asked about interest, purchase intent, or word of mouth there was no statistically significant difference between the sources.

Bottom line — your best bet is to make a good product and offer good customer service because that’s what consumers will write blog posts and tweet about, and that’s what will influence other consumers to buy your products or services.

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