Recently when exploring a reporting platform, I raised an eyebrow at a $25 million ad-equivalent value assigned to two weeks’ worth of media mentions about a small firm. Probably few people take such numbers particularly seriously—especially when an ad-equivalent figure is more than a company’s entire annual revenue—but what about some of the other metrics made possible by the bots that crawl and count the public web?

“Share of voice,” for example. Or “reach.” How much stock should communications professionals and their clients put in such figures?

It’s actually a tough question, because while the problems with such figures are evident, their appeal is equally so. How great for a marketing professional to have definitive statistics to take to a CEO or a board of directors? And that’s totally fine—even helpful—if everyone in the chain knows to take such metrics with a few teaspoons of salt.

Media exposure isn’t like website traffic

Media mentions are easier to count in the internet era, but now, as always, counting and dividing into percentages doesn’t deliver a true measure of value. Media outcomes aren’t like traffic to your website, readily measurable with Google Analytics.

But what if people reviewing media metrics don’t understand that? What if they literally turn the page from a Google Analytics traffic report to a media-mentions report that looks awfully similar? Will they make the conceptual leap? It’s not hard to imagine failing to do so. Media is hard to get your hands around. Anything that offers the sensation of doing so seems welcome. Plus, people simply like dashboard reports. And rightly so—so long as what’s shown on them doesn’t distract from or even obscure what actually matters.

Say a company has a narrow customer base, rendering a generic concept such as “reach” meaningless to the business. What if a reviewer/business-decision-maker doesn’t grasp the limitations of the reporting? What if a board member rightly praises the success of a marketing executive but does so not for meaningful business results but for a metric that relates poorly to those business results?

In such situations, wouldn’t it be tempting for media and communications professionals to start trying to manage to the metrics? To spend time sending news releases far and wide, when the business could benefit so much more by, say, landing one, single home-run story that could mean so much more for the business?

Say that home-run story is in a small trade publication that’s a powerhouse in the narrow sub-industry the company serves but little known beyond. Say the “share of voice” metric was somehow narrowed down to measure media just at that sub-industry level. Even then, the home-run story might not influence the metric much. It’s just one story. What it might directly influence the company’s sales success rate.

Cake, frosting and sprinkles

When it comes to media reporting, the actual list of outcomes is the cake. The dashboard reports are the frosting. And the metrics are the sprinkles.

I like frosting. Sprinkles, too. But I’m careful to keep a comfortable cake-to-frosting ratio in each forkful of cake. Frosting by itself? Only in the middle of the night, in the dark, off a spoon.

This cake-to-frosting ratio concept might be helpful to anyone putting together media-coverage reports for less-familiar parties to review:

  • Focus mostly on the cake. Highlight key coverage. Find ways to emphasize the specific outcomes that you worked for and obtained. Show why those matter to the business. Make sure reviewers understand this is what matters most. Link results backward to goals and forward to opportunities. Connect to strategy.
  • If the cake is well baked, then by all means use frosting and sprinkles, too. Consider explicitly presenting the metrics not as “true” in an absolute sense but perhaps helpful in time-series format for the purpose of gauging results now versus prior periods. That’s a helpful way to avoid fixation on exactly what the metric means—whether the numerator or denominator, say, is truly aligned with what matters to a business.

It’s always been hard to measure the value of media outcomes. It still is.

Ultimately, regardless of what any metrics say, a decision to allocate resources to a media effort comes down to business needs and potential benefits. Those benefits might be measurable (e.g., increasing asset flows), or they might not be measurable (e.g., maintaining a reputation as an expert in a particular area).

Either way, the business situation determines what to manage to. Never the sprinkles.