An if-then illustration to show the concept of attribution and PR measurement.

The term “attribution” has been bandied about frequently of late. So I thought it would be a good idea to provide another of our No Bullsh*t Guides, this time to attribution and PR measurement.

According to Merriam-Webster, “attribution” has nothing to do with marketing. Rather, it involves artists, supernatural power, and psychology. Google (source is the Oxford English) says it is: “The action of regarding something as being caused by a person or thing.” Which at least is closer to how we use it today. A press release, I suppose, is a thing. And press releases do occasionally cause articles to be written. They very rarely “cause” a sale.

According to Jamin Spitzer, founder of Abacus Insights Partners and a fellow member of the IPR Measurement Commission, attribution is: “Some combination of actual readership reach within specific target audiences (for B2C it’s demographics, for B2B it’s job role) and then actions taken (visit a website, try/download/buy).” Makes sense to me.

Attribution = Show a connection to the path to purchase

Unfortunately, what you get from most vendors who claim that they can show attribution is just simple integration with your Google Analytics data. (Insider tip: You can do that for free with Google Data Studio.) At best you’ll be able show that you got news coverage around the same time that more people took actions on your website. And ideally found your Contact Us page.

In a perfect world, you would:

  1. Track media appearance in target media.
  2. Make assumptions about the likelihood that those appearances actually “reached” your target audience.
  3. Add in a quality score to make sure that the coverage is desirable and contained elements that left readers more likely to purchase, increase your credibility, or otherwise act in the way you want them to. See “How To Develop a Customized Kick Butt Index of the Quality of Your Media Coverage.”

This process will show that you at least have a connection to the path to purchase.

Attribution and PR measurement: credit or causality?

The way professional communicators typically use “attribution” is really more about claiming credit than actual causality. In reality, showing attribution or actual ROI is the measurement equivalent of a snipe hunt – not exactly a fool’s errand, but damn close. There’s never been a sales manager or VP that would ever in a million years give credit to PR for making a sale.

I learned this the hard way when I was at HP. Back then we had just introduced an innovative little product called the LaserJet. This was long before HP was the consumer company it is today. My assignment was to get non-HP dealers (of which there were many) to sign up to carry our brand new hot product, the LaserJet.

So, I got a list of all the computer retailers at the time that did not carry HP products. We then designed a cool little promotion that featured a toy gun that looked like something out of Star Trek. It had an HP logo on it, and we put in a box that said “Zap the Competition with a Laser! (Yes, I know. Before you cringe, this was in 1976, long before anyone knew what a mass shooting was.)

It was a huge success. We signed up a ton of new dealers and sold roughly $1.4 million worth of LaserJets to dealers who had never carried HP products.

Of course, since I’d gone over budget by about $3000, I was hauled into the VP’s office to justify the overrun. I suggested that the 1.4 million dollars we brought in was reason to celebrate, not chastise. Unfortunately, the VP of sales was also in the room. He immediate dismissed my claim by saying, “Nah, you guys had nothing to do with it, we were already talking to those dealers anyway.”

I haven’t tried to claim attribution for a sale since.

But I’ve shown communication’s contributions hundreds of times. In fact, we even wrote an ebook listing fifty ways that PR folks can show ROI: “50 Shades of PR ROI.” (Get yours today!)

Don’t fall for the temptation of attribution

Yes, of course, we’ve all heard a ton of anecdotes about how someone saw an article or read a press release and ended up buying a product or choosing a vacation destination. But all of those wonderful stories discount the role of price, availability, advertising, the user experience, the sales team, etc. in the process. It’s complicated.

So complicated, in fact, that chasing the mythical creature of attribution and PR measurement is a waste of time and resources. And it distracts from the true contributions that communications definitely does make: increasing consideration, improving relationships, bolstering trust and credibility, and building loyalty.

For example, when I worked for a defense contractor, I was told to pull together a dashboard that would “show ROI.”  My first step was to visit the CEO’s official “dashboard person.” He immediately assured me that no one was going to buy a missile system after reading a press release. Our job was to measure the extent to which communications was convincing stakeholders that the company “made the beer not the cans.” That translates into building credibility in the company’s positioning that it was a technology company that made the brains inside missile systems.

So the job became easy peasy. We tracked message dissemination and amplification in the media, and the results were backed up by annual survey research.

We also demonstrated that more communications meant more credibility. Our research showed that the company whose spokespeople were quoted most often in the media during the six months prior to a contract award was almost always the winner. And that the more visibility the CEO had, the more likely the company was to land in the top five for their category on Fortune’s “Most Admired Companies” list.

The point of the story? Don’t let the temptation of maybe showing attribution distract you from the very doable demonstration of solid outcomes of your communications.

Vendors, attribution, and you

That said, a ton of marketing mix modeling has shown that media coverage contributes directly or indirectly to purchasing decisions at some point or other. If you’ve got a really good system, it will automatically time shift the results so you know how long your coverage takes to pay off.

The problem with marketing mix modeling is that it requires several years of pretty comprehensive data that can be time-synched to the sales, marketing, and web analytics data.

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