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Engagement – PR’s lost metric

I was intrigued by a recent blog post from Tom Foremski where he “raised the possibility of PR agencies developing the ability to drive lots of traffic to specific news stories” and suggesting that this would constitute a PR firm’s “killer pitch”.
I immediately thought of a superb piece by Ashley Friedlein at E-Consultancy (New metrics and business models for digital publishing – selling outcomes not inputs).
He may have written it nearly a year ago, but it still makes good sense. His opening question – are publishers using outdated metrics – could equally apply to PR.
And it was this that struck me about Tom’s post.
The implicit assumption in Tom’s analysis is that all traffic is good. And more traffic is better. However, even publisher’s don’t think this. Rupert Murdoch clearly doesn’t think so. Specifically, traffic from search engines. In which case, why is traffic generated by PR firms going to be any better?  In fact, you could argue that they will generate precisely the kind of traffic that Murdoch and other big publishers protest to hate – namely, sporadic, non-loyal readers.
Given that this is 2010, surely the traffic for traffic sake argument is well and truly exploded. Isn’t engagement the name of the game?
What is the point of increasing traffic, or indeed unique visitor numbers as per Gawker, if the bounce rate rises and average engagement time falls?
As per Ashley Friedlein’s post, last year, the Newspaper Marketing Agency in the UK found that 56% of newspaper site visits last for under one minute. That’s not a great deal of engagement with content. If increasing traffic leads to greater numbers of unengaged readers, then who cares. I’ve long argued that only publisher’s have access to the data that advertisers (and PR firms) should really care about eg readership figures for specific stories, engagement time with specific pieces of coverage, etc. However, as Friedlein points out, advertising and PR clients are now in a quite powerful position – they know not only the input they’ve paid for (ads or press coverage generated), but they know the outcomes that these inputs have created (or not). They can now easily compare different input mechanisms and see which ones perform better than others. In the context of PR, those that are focussing on delivering outcome based campaigns are clearly going to fare better than those that deliver inputs.
In short, engagement is the name of the game.
But lack of engagement exists everywhere.  The New York Times has nearly 2.3 million Twitter followers – and yet the click throughs on links to its stories via Twitter often barely break into double figures. Even the best ones are in the low 000s. Massive reach in this case isn’t necessarily translating into engagement with content (at least not on the scale that you might imagine)
To return to Tom Foremski’s argument, I’d be curious to know how a PR might go about bumping up traffic to a particular news story (I have an image of hapless PR execs spending their days furiously opening and re-opening the web page of a piece of coverage to try and bump up the viewer figures – again, it might increase traffic, but engagement time is clearly zero).
If you were going to take this approach, why not just run a PPC campaign instead? (don’t publishers do this already?) Why do you need a PR firm to do that?
As Friedlein aptly puts it: “Too little attention is given to measuring outcomes. Specifically, digital media and digital publishing offer greater opportunity to track and measure outcomes that are not so readily available in ‘traditional’ media.”
Likewise with PR. The sooner the PR sector starts to think about outcomes and engagement rather than inputs, the better for all concerned.