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awareness PR measurement metricMany business executives and public relations professionals cite “increase awareness” as a top PR objective. But awareness has become a controversial metric in PR measurement circles. Some say awareness, or brand recall, is a major factor leading to purchases. Consumers are much more likely to purchase a product if only they can remember it. Others call awareness a vanity metric that does little to measure key business objectives.

The Big Lie

If people say their only goal is to increase awareness, they are lying, asserts Julie Wright of Wright Communications. No one wants their PR campaign to simply raise awareness. They want their campaign to motivate consumers or other stakeholders to take a specific, measurable behavior: buy a product, visit a destination, attend an event, submit their email, visit the website, download the white paper or make a donation.

“Hold yourself to a higher standard and help your client or boss understand that you do more than just ‘create buzz,'” Wright urges. She recommends these steps to develop a more meaningful PR measurement.

  • Set an objective that states the behavior you want your stakeholders to take and a timeframe for reaching the objective.
  • Work backwards and think about your informational objective. Develop the message or knowledge your stakeholders need to receive and the motivation or the emotional connection they need to take the desired action.
  • Research your stakeholders to determine their level of awareness and knowledge and what motivates them.

A Red Herring

Doing PR to increase awareness is a red herring, says Katie Paine, CEO of Paine Publishing, Awareness might be an acceptable goal for a start-up, but established brands need to address perception and consideration of the brands, Paine said in an interview with marketing and PR agency Arketi Group.

Nonprofits often want to increase awareness of their organization. The problem is not increasing awareness, but a false understanding of what the organization does. The solution is to educate people about the nonprofit’s mission and why it matters.

“The red herring factor is when people say, ‘I want to increase awareness.’ It’s not really about awareness or impression—it’s getting people to understand what you do and why it’s important,” Paine says.

A Waste of Money

Sean Ellis, founder and CEO of GrowthHackers.com, calls building awareness a waste of start-up resources. “Building a strong customer acquisition engine is the best chance you have of creating long-term awareness,” Ellis writes. “At a certain scale, awareness/brand building makes sense.  But for the first year or two it’s a total waste of money.”

Still, many PR teams continue to pursue awareness. There’s enough historical data to suggest an indirect link between brand awareness and sales, argues Douglas Cook at Skyscanner Growth in a Medium article. Yet the company’s research reveals a curious disconnect between awareness and web traffic for its own projects.

“To date I’ve never seen brand awareness on a list of vanity metrics alongside the likes of UMVs or page likes, but perhaps it should be?” Cook surmises.

In the pre-Internet days, PR turned to surveys to gauge brand awareness. They now can also use social media measurement. Social media analytics provide data much faster and affordably than traditional surveys. It also avoids survey bias, the tendency of people to provide incorrect answers.

Bottom Line: Although PR pros often brag about increasing awareness of their brands, some PR measurement experts call awareness a spurious objective. More valid objectives relate to specific actions of stakeholders and the organization’s primary goal. Simply trying to “create buzz” degrades PR’s role.

William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.