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What influencer marketing can learn from PR’s history

Influencer marketing, like public relations, is hard to measure. Contributor Chuck Moran discusses the difficulties marketers face when gauging the impact of an influencer marketing program and the lessons we can learn from the PR industry.

Influencer marketing is one of the most exciting marketing tactics brands are using today, uniting branded content development with the amplification power of networked social media audiences, within or outside of the social networks themselves. The parallels with PR abound — content married to the distributive power of media/social platforms, and the challenge of measuring the organic impact of an earned media placement.

As marketers wade into the burgeoning space of influencer marketing, they should keep in mind what the PR industry has learned when it comes to measurement.

To be sure, public relations is difficult to measure. It’s of value to the enterprise, without question, yet it finds expression in different ways across different campaigns.

A successful PR initiative can drive increased visibility for company executives, fuel new business activity, boost site traffic, grow social media followers, brand sentiment and share of voice, and even impact stock price or employee retention. By being “earned” instead of paid, marketers can cite advertising click-through rates (CTR), brand lift, mentions or any number of click or post-click metrics to define success. However, the right way to measure earned media attention remains somewhat elusive and difficult to consolidate into a single metric.

That hasn’t stopped many from trying. Advertising Value Equivalent (or AVE) metrics — once a common metric — attempt to uniformly value earned media based on what a paid placement would cost for the same real estate on the same publisher sites. According to AVE, if an ad unit on the front page costs X, a front-page article would be of similar value.

AVE is rejected by many PR pros and has fallen out of favor. The International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC), the leading trade body responsible for measurement standards in PR, formally rejected AVE in 2010, for example.

PR pros note that AVE doesn’t measure the accuracy of the placement (in the right publication with the right message) and fails to capture the scenarios where PR’s resources are used to keep companies out of the press. It proposes an equivalency between two things that are not equivalent; organic placement and paid placement are wholly distinct in terms of their overall value to the business.

And yet, AVE is still used broadly by PR pros and asked for frequently by clients. It has remained as a standard reporting feature in PR software like TrendKite, for example, which notes its shortcomings but provides it anyway. It’s easy to understand why: In a data-driven, digital era, the appetite for quantifiable ROI metrics is insatiable.

From my research, the consensus among seasoned PR pros is to adopt a highly customized approach to measurement that sets forth specific KPIs per campaign. Each PR campaign has different objectives, as with marketing itself. Measurement is not one-size-fits-all and probably never will be, as much as the PR departments (and those they report to) would like it to be.

Risks of standardizing earned media execution and measurement

The most prevalent measure used to value the impact of an influencer marketing program is earned media value (EMV), a distinct but related metric to the AVE figure described above. This single measure of impact is expressed in dollars — and is the aggregated value of all program events divided by the total spend on the program overall — including content development, paying talent and so on.

The valued events can range from Facebook “Likes” and Pinterest repins to Snapchat filter use or sweepstakes entries. In some sophisticated measurement models, specific events are given a different weight or value based on their positive impact on the brand.

This calculated value is useful in evaluating campaign success, but it must be viewed in terms of the context of the overall program’s design and objectives, and (as we saw with PR) must not be the sole evaluation criteria.

Once again, there is the risk of collapsing two distinct things — an organic reference and a paid one — into one neat category for the sake of measurement. Authentic messages to a consumer from someone they trust are far more likely to have a positive impact than another paid message; this bias is hard to assign a value to, and thus makes this imperfect from the outset.

The growth of influencer marketing is astonishing. Many marketers have committed to the strategy, as it’s the only way to engage with their target audience, while others have been responding to management directive. Whatever the reason, a deliberate approach to planning a program and identifying the key performance measures on which it will be evaluated are essential.

Certainly, all marketing efforts need a deliberative foundation, but that need is much truer for influencer marketing, as it is a kinetic space where consumer behaviors shift from moment to moment, new platforms emerge, and established platforms expand their product offerings.

In the planning process, attention needs to be given to the many platforms available and their utility to your target audience, along with what they can help a marketer achieve. Platforms to consider include Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Tumblr and Snapchat. Each of these platforms offers unique opportunities to reach specific audience segments — and specific performance metrics by which a campaign’s success can be measured.

This gets us back to the problem marketers face when evaluating the impact of an influencer marketing program. It’s a little easier if a program is siloed into a single platform, but the moment it reaches across platforms, it becomes difficult to assign relative value of an event in one platform versus an event in another.

Is a “Like” on Facebook worth less, the same or more than a repin on Pinterest? And of course, it’s not as though there’s an easy way to compare likes vs. shares vs. mentions within a single platform (i.e., Facebook) itself. Influencer marketing companies and advertisers alike are trying to standardize this value, but it’s not simple.

Influencer marketing presents challenges — challenges that are rooted in the complexity of the offering. Today, most marketing organizations are stretched with the demands of building consumer engagement, demand and brand and organizational value.

As tempting as it might seem to go it alone, I strongly recommend seeking out the experts. Whether that is your PR agency or a social media/influencer marketing specialist, enlisting a resource that can translate your specific marketing need into a customized approach to execution and measurement will yield fewer headaches — and a much greater likelihood of success.

by Chuck Moran
source: Marketing Land