6 Sexy Snapshots from the 2021 Summit on the Future of Measurement

People attend the annual Summit on the Future of Communications Measurement for a wide variety of reasons. Most come to hear what the top communications pros at well-known brands are doing to measure their results. But academics come also, to find out what to teach their students to better prepare them for the future. Sponsors pick up ideas for products and services they need to develop next year. And of course some people come because the theme is one that they are dealing with on a regular basis.

As usual, this year’s Summit offered something for everyone. The advertised focus was on Diversity, Advocacy, and ESG (Environment, Society, and Governance). (Read more about ESG here.) We certainly addressed all three, and the subsequent discussions went off in a dozen different directions. From the two days of great presentations and conversations we gleaned the most significant themes:

1. “Winning” is the only metric you will ever need

Jim ShafferOur lead-off presentation was by Jim Shaffer, CEO of The Shaffer Group. Shaffer is a leading proponent of Performance Communications, the concept that the most important communications are those (both internal and external) that are tightly tied to “winning,” i.e., achieving corporate goals and yielding tangible financial results. (Mary Miller wrote a great explanation of this concept here.)

His presentation was sparked by a heated exchange on LinkedIn on measuring the value of diversity, and whether ESG scores were a valid communications metric. Shaffer argued that, whether it’s DEI or advocacy or anything else, if communications weren’t tightly linked to management’s goals and weren’t helping the company “win” (however they defined it), then they didn’t matter.

Now, I am both a moral person, and quite cognizant of how hard it is to measure comms. So I argued that an organization’s actions around diversity, the environment, social equity, and governance had intrinsic value that may or may not translate into a dollar value, depending on your goals.  For example, Research from Glassdoor  found that 32% of workers would not apply to a job at a company where there is a lack of diversity and 76% say it’s an important factor in accepting a job offer. Other research revealed that more diverse companies are 21% more likely to experience high profitability, solve problems faster and develop new products.

His pitch was that comms professional earn bigger bonuses and higher salaries when they tie results to revenue. And I—and, really, the rest of the measurement world—completely agree with that. But he thinks that diversity only matters if it’s a means to achieving a business goal. But is “winning” really enough? Is it okay to make money even if you’re being discriminatory? Is there no value in correcting the mistakes of the past? Or is that value just too difficult to measure? How can you win unless you attract a diverse staff, or if you’re perceived as an unwelcoming company?

In reality it’s not an either or debate, and it’s an important discussion for our times. Which is why I invited him to the Summit. 

Shaffer’s advice to Summit attendees was that, rather than focusing on reputation, communications should measure results in terms of:

  • Customer measures, including net promoter score, customer profitability, and retention rate, length of stay, and leads generated.
  • Financial performance, including revenue growth, net profit margin, gross margin ROI, cost per production hour, and operating income.
  • Internal processes, such as project schedule and project cost variance, order fulfillment cycle time, handle time, process downtime, yield loss, changeover speed, employee turnover, gross inventory turns, and pounds produced.
  • Quality, including first pass through/first call resolution, scrap, and rework. 

Which side of the argument you, our dearly beloved readers, fall on?

2. Reputation intelligence will be your vital new dashboard

Cindy Villafranca, communications measurement and analytics manager at Southwest Airlines, presented a very different perspective. She reported that ongoing monthly reputation tracking was their metric of choice.

The last two years have been challenging for all airlines, and Southwest has been no exception. To judge the impact of all the external factors buffeting the airline, Villafranca assembled a Reputation Intelligence Team that assembled input and data from a variety of departments, including;

  • brand
  • community outreach
  • customer support and service
  • culture
  • customer experience
  • customer insights
  • customer relations
  • diversity and inclusion
  • environmental
  • flight ops
  • fuel supply chain
  • ground operations
  • in-flight
  • investor relations
  • marketing
  • people
  • recruiting
  • Southwest business
  • supply chain
  • and SWA University.

On the communications side the team include corporate comms, external comms, labor comms, marketing, ops comms, planning and delivery, and social business. (Yes, it sounds complicated, but it actually isn't any more so than most of the dashboards I've implemented for other major brands.)

The team assembled a dashboard that tracked brand reputation for both Southwest and its peers. They defined specific drivers of reputation, including leadership, citizenship, workplace, and governance, and then tracked each one monthly.

The resulting dashboard provided regular guidance as to how to respond to all the various crises and issues the airline faced in 2020. The dashboard tracked how their audience feels about the airline in general and compared to its peers; what specific attributes they associate with the airline, and, ultimately, how likely they are to buy a ticket and/or recommend the airline. By evaluating how people feel, think, and act relative to the company, Southwest was able to make informed decisions about their responses to the various events.

They also tracked all that data against the media coverage which presumably was driving any change in how people felt and/or thought and/or acted. As the chart below shows there as a direct relationship.

RepTrak provided the reputational data, and media analysis showed the impact of all the news on that reputation score. The surprise was that despite all the challenges, Southwest’s reputation improved. Also it outperformed the competition.

3. You will need to be an expert on the audience, not just the medium

Eve Stevens, senior manager of insights at Microsoft, introduced us to the concept of audience-first measurement. She spent years developing an internal system to drive insights from looking backwards at what people were saying. Now Stevens is focused on looking forward, to discover insights to help Microsoft “build new muscles” and move faster toward the future.

The first step was changing their focus away from where their audience gets the news, and toward discovering what their audience is interested in and what they wanted to hear from Microsoft. They realized that, even though Microsoft might have one consistent message, they couldn’t take that message in the same form to all audiences.

Their decisions were shaped by data from LinkedIn’s B2B Institute, Pew, and Reuters that revealed how much business decision makers have changed. The new emerging business decision makers (EBDMs) are digital natives who are diverse, concerned about sustainability, and are getting news from very different sources. Stevens said that when they compared their “traditional” audience to these new EBDMs, the biggest difference they found was the extent to which the latter interact on social media, and how and what they consumed for brand and product news. They also found that women were much more likely to get information from social media, black business professionals preferred blogs, and Hispanic business professional preferred podcasts.

The other insights included:

  • EBDMs bring their native tech interest to work with them and have strong influence over purchasing decisions.
  • Their mindsets are very different from earlier generations. They already report decision-making authority and are there and waiting for someone to listen and pay attention to them.
  • Many of them are side hustlers and entrepreneurs themselves.
  • To accurately survey these new audiences, you may have to oversample for certain segments to ensure you get sufficiently large cohorts to allow meaningful analysis.

It's about the audience. Eve advised attendees that, as a result of these new decision makers, measurement has to move from being media-focused to access-point-oriented. Regardless of  whether the access point is a blog, a podcast, Discord, TikTok, or traditional media, it’s different depending on the interest and needs of the person consuming that media.

Stevens says, “We’re talking about an audience, not a medium. Messages have to be adapted to the people and platforms that they are on. We have to understand what young professional women on Instagram need in order to make our story accessible. We also need to understand who, besides news organizations, do they follow? When you walk the talk of addressing diverse audiences, it quickly gets very complex. We just have to remember that for social or any particular medium, it’s the audience and the people that influence them. “

When asked about the challenge of keeping messages consistent, Stevens was adamant: “You can tweak around the edges or do something different to make it pop in a different way, but the brand’s point of view can’t be pandering, it has to be resonant throughout.”

4. ESG will be the new CSR

Mark Stouse, founder of ProofAnalytics, a MarTech platform that measures the value of all types of communications, argued that ESG (Environmental Social and Government) scoring of companies has supplanted Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). CSR is now seen as a part of the cost of doing business; a good thing to do, but not something that moves the needle on business. ESG, on the other hand, is considered vital to business survival.

The problem, Stouse points out, is that in traditional comms teams the biggest data gaps are around brand reputation, trust, and ESG data. Unlike Southwest Airlines, most organizations don’t collect data on trust and reputation often enough. “They might take a snapshot in time or do a voice-of-the-customer survey, but it is worthless operationally because it ages out or isn’t consistent or frequent enough and therefore can’t be modeled. Data that is historical only validates the effect of something they have done in the past. You need more regular data to be able to predict what can be accomplished, because past is not prologue anymore.”

It’s about the money. That’s the reason companies care so much more about ESG than they ever did about CSR. ESG scores look at company’s risk factors and, ideally, risk mitigation.

Stouse says, “Reality involves risk, so they have adopted the point of view of investment banks: is this company a good investment? And it turns out that ESG scores are a leading indicator of how a company is likely to be doing months and years from now. So, if your ESG scores are problematic, that’s a signal to divest or reshape their investment. If the company’s ESG is improving, they may need to deepen their position. And for public companies, that is the most powerful motivator, other than personal beliefs of the CEO.”

As a result, Stouse explains, companies have started to conform and take action to drive better ESG numbers. The other factor is that, “You can’t ‘ESG-wash’ the company the way you could with CSR. Numbers reflect reality.  So, unless you are willing to do what is necessary to improve the numbers, you lose.”

Stouse believes this shift in emphasis should be “awesome” for communications. Transformational initiatives and risk-mitigation strategies require excellent communications. “What happens in the dark is always the problem,” Stouse added.

One concern about past ESG calculations is that they were self-reported, but Stouse says that is changing. The ESG firm he partners with gets its data by scraping the internet to triangulate the truth on self-reported data. “The BS-meter is built into their data. There’s so much money at stake, self-reported data would never fly. And it’s in the company’s self-interest to get it right because they’ll be seriously exposed if they get it wrong.”

As with all that Proof does, time shifting is a big element in ESG. Stouse admits that ESG is relatively new for many companies, and it takes a while for companies to get their act together to materially change the numbers. But according to Stouse’s data, ESG has an impact on the perception of your audience, which then impacts their behavior. Not surprisingly, positive developments have a bigger time lag than negative ones.

He says, “When a poorly run business runs afoul of current socio-political expectations, it is an uphill climb. If your environmental record is poor, even though you may score high on social and governance issues, it bleeds out into trust scores. Thanks to two years of visually and viscerally experiencing climate change, the E part is taking on increased importance. One key reason is the materiality of risk. If I have facilities that are on the coast that are likely to be threatened by ocean rise, that is a risk to the company, its employees, and its shareholders.”

5. Planning is the first step of effective measurement

For all those who call PR and communications “soft,” there is no better example of how hard “soft” communications can be than SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) NATO. Their mission is to “Prepare for, plan, and conduct military operations in order to meet NATO political objectives.” Which means their communications objectives range from reassuring their population that NATO has the capabilities to keep them safe, to deterring adversaries.    

Elizabeth Fry, head of communications analysis at SHAPE, gave us some insight into how communications supports these efforts, and how her team goes about assessing those communications. It all starts with planning by asking the key “why” questions over and over again. What to we want to do? Why? Why will it help the mission? And exactly how does it help the mission?

As with Stevens at Microsoft, for Fry the audience is always key. Every day she works with 30 different countries. Each (except Iceland) has its own military and its own priorities, language, people, and equipment. So she has to consider not just what language to communicate in, but what media does the audience trust? (Yes, Fry has a very cool job. We named her our Measurement Maven of the Month a while back.) 

Everything becomes part of the message. What might start off as an idea to celebrate an anniversary ends up with a metric like, “there is a 10% increase in confidence that NATO can protect you.” A movement of troops becomes part of a “show of force” message to reassure people in Eastern Europe that NATO will be there to protect civilians.

Says Fry, “You can’t do measurement without all the foundation work of planning the strategy and mapping out all the activities to match the strategy. Someone may want a front-page article, but we have to push back and pose the questions:

  • Is the front page really what you need?
  • What have we learned from prior events?
  • What benchmarks can we bring in?
  • Is this really the best way to reach your audience?”

Once all those questions are answered, she can figure out whether there is an existing measurement system in place to get the data, or whether a survey or some other tool is required. Her message was that yes, coordinating all those people, languages, and cultures is a challenge. But good measurement is probably 80% planning and 20% gathering data.

6. You don’t have to be loud to be effective         

The opposite of greenwashing is silent advocacy, according to Deanna Centurion, founder of Cyera Strategies. She told the story of one of her clients who is very involved in the effort to stop human trafficking. Trafficking happens on land that the client either owns or has rights to, and as a major employer they can impact the local economy. So they work closely with Native American tribal groups as well as law enforcement to get the word out about the problem.

But the challenge for Centurion is that the client doesn’t want its name associated with the advocacy effort. So how do you measure what no one knows about?

The reasons for the anonymity are complicated. Although it’s a problem that the client can have an impact on, it’s a sensitive topic. So Centurion starts by measuring trust. Centurion has long measured various components of trust for her clients, but recently her primary focus has been on “Equality in the Relationship” (Jim Grunig calls it Control Mutuality).

In this case, the goal is to build trust among local populations, and also with regulators and law enforcement as well as tribal and community leaders. Their efforts include job training, coaching by small business specialists to ensure that they hire indigenous-owned businesses when outsourcing, and doing what they can to assist law enforcement with human trafficking cases.

The question, of course, is: If their results improve good will, then why would they want to remain silent about those results? Centurion explained that the client believes that being silent is more effective, especially when the issue is a tough one. So they don’t see an upside to be allied with an issue when they can be effective without the exposure.

She likens it to companies responding to abortion laws or bathroom bills. If the relationship is a difficult one to explain, then people might not easily understand why they are doing it, other than “woke washing.”  

“It’s also a matter of knowing when to speak and when to elevate others to speak,” Centurion added. “Sometimes it’s more effective to elevate others to speak.”  She noted that it is much more effective to have the public face be someone who looks, talks, and appears to be ‘people like me.’ You need credibility with the people you are trying to support with your DEI efforts. It’s not about the numbers overall, it’s about the people you really want to retain and attract. ∞

Photo by Kaizen Nguyễn on Unsplash.

About Author

Katie Paine

I've been called The Queen Of Measurement, but I prefer Seshat, the Goddess.