When I started at Echo Research 30 years ago in 1992, the media analysis industry was much smaller than it is today and, with hindsight, much less sophisticated, too. Back then, media analysis was seen more as a ‘nice to have’, a ‘luxury’ when it was widely accepted that ‘PR cannot be measured’. More to the point, the power of the media and key sources was not fully appreciated as to their impact on perception, choices and behaviour. Since then, the industry has rapidly evolved and media evaluation is accepted as a ‘must have’ service to support the communications function.
So how is media evaluation different now to 1992, and what has changed in the 30 years?
The material – from paper to digital
In 1992, measurement was by the ‘thud factor’ of press books delivered by press cutting agencies. Prior to consolidation and digitisation, there were many such agencies in those days, variously specialising in local, regional, national and/or trade press, broadcast tapes and transcripts, and wider international coverage through local partners around the world.
We worked with multiple monitoring agencies in order to get hold of the various types of coverage – especially for some specialist trade media – and the various countries we were analysing. This mostly meant working directly with numerous in-country agencies in the US, Europe, and Asia. In some cases, we had to subscribe to publications directly, monitor them for relevant coverage and post these on A4 paper for ease of analysis by our team. In those days, all articles were placed on A4 paper, either as originals or photocopies and sent to us by cutting agencies in huge envelopes which often arrived damaged and occasionally illegible cuttings.
With coverage collated and sent from agencies abroad we would hold our breath as to whether it would arrive in time for our research deadlines.
At the time, we employed a dedicated team of clip administrators, who were kept busy with the thick packages that came through the post, sorting the content by project, date, and which analyst they were to be allocated to. Our team of trained and qualified analysts would be sent their respective ‘batches’ and return them when completed by a set time, so they would then go through our quality control process. Printers, stationers, the post office and couriers did well out of the industry!
Gradually, from the early 2000s we saw several important developments – consolidation and digitisation.
Monitoring agencies were starting partnership with others for greater geographical reach and media coverage, which meant we were able to work with fewer agencies to get the material we needed.
Then, clippings started to become available in digitised format, downloadable from online portals.
These two developments made significant contributions to faster and more efficient analysis of the media, enabling us to significantly cut the required research and subsequent report delivery times. Increasingly our clients were also happy to receive and ask for reports in digital format rather than print, again helping to shorten reporting and production cycles.
Hardware, software and the importance of ‘wet ware’
There is no doubt, over the years technology, especially with the recent developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning, has further accelerated the monitoring, research and reporting processes for the better. However, one element that has not changed at Echo since I started – and will never change - is the human input and control. Human intelligence remains our most valuable asset at every stage of our reporting cycle – it is THE one most important continuum that we have always maintained at Echo: from quality control of any automated output, manual evaluation of communications output, messaging, tone and sentiment by our dedicated long-standing analysts to providing the all-important insights from the data that help our clients understand the effectiveness of their communications, contribution to their business goals and impact of their media profile on their reputation. All elements which AI or machine learning really cannot do accurately.
The scope – from news to social
In the early 2000s another ‘phenomenon’ started to grab the industry’s attention: social media, epitomised by social networks Facebook, My Space, Flickr, Twitter and Instagram. We had to consider impact and importance of social media on the reputation of an organisation and how to track and evaluate it. The very different content format and style and the sheer volume of posts and conversations required a rethink of the analysis approach. Here, technology probably made some of its most important contributions.
Social media networks quickly turned into platforms for consumer opinion, often highly polarised, and soon saw the emergence of ‘the influencer’. The power of social media as a platform for (consumer) opinion and influencing consumer opinion quickly became clear as a fast and accessible form of feedback and response facilitating direct engagement, and real time risk and issues management. Social listening has become a standard element and part of media monitoring and analysis at Echo.
As a source of trusted information, amid an increasingly noisy and demanding work, we now support our clients in listening to and engaging with their audience directly via their own social media channels as a part and parcel of their trust and reputation programmes.
Metrics and focus– evidence of success and impact
30 years ago, sheer volume counts, opportunities-to-see (OTS) and Advertising Value Equivalent (AVE) were the three most common metrics used to measure success and value or Return on Investment (ROI) of communications. Competing with marketing departments for budget, AVEs in particular, were an attempt to put a monetary ROI on communications, ‘demonstrating’ the ‘value’ of communications to financially minded senior executives by estimating how much a piece would be worth if it was paid for.
At Echo we, and our CEO Sandra Macleod in particular, were among the pioneers to expose AVEs as wrong and arbitrary ‘value’ based on unrealistic calculations that may have looked impressive but provided no meaningful indication of the effectiveness and impact of communications. Instead, we were beating the drum for a focus on the contribution of communications through the quality of coverage, messages, media engagement, advocacy, sentiment, the issues that matter and the impact it might have. Today the majority of communication professionals have accepted AVEs as flawed vanity metrics, now barred by the leading industry trade bodies.
In terms of metric changes, we are experiencing a rethink around impressions or reach as well now, similar to that for AVEs. Impressions (published readership numbers for print; published unique daily visitors for a website) tend to generate BIG impressive numbers, especially in the age of online reach, which relate to readership of an entire publication, unique visitors of an entire website rather than the specific article or post analysed. So, as impressive as these numbers are – even with that little word ‘potentially’ preceding them, they are also very misleading as typically only a small percentage of readers will actually see the article, even fewer, a news site back-to-back. There are currently attempts to provide article-level readership data, estimates based on online web analytics and statistics around how long a user looks at a webpage, the position of a post and how long it remains on that page. This may provide more realistic data for online coverage but not necessarily for traditional print items.
The industry – from monitoring and data to insights and business objectives
Since 1992 the industry has moved from monitoring and presenting data to analysing reputation, trust and the integration of business objectives, an awareness and acceptance of the importance of communications in driving reputation, trust and business objectives.
Echo was instrumental in the creation of industry body AMEC (The International Association for Measurement and Evaluation of Communication) in 1996, which has brought recognition of the industry and of the importance of evaluation as an essential tool of e communication strategy. Particularly important has been the widely accepted principles and guidance for evaluation by way of setting common, professional standards, such as the Barcelona Principles and the Integrated Evaluation Framework.
Traditional silos between communication and marketing – doing their own thing and producing disjointed messaging -are being broken down as the value and necessity of working together is now clear, with joined up messaging and one coherent and consistent focus on common strategic goals.
In all the 30 years, one thing has remained the same: ultimately organisations are looking for the answer to one big question – what does all this (data) mean for my business (goals). Any serious media analysis provider will not just visualise data and show pick-up of communication activities, but also deliver insights into the effectiveness of the activities in shaping the organisation’s reputation and supporting its business goals. This cannot be done by technology alone but requires human intelligence to guide technology, properly assess tone and sentiment, messages, drivers of reputation and draw the right conclusions and insights from the data – and that is the most exciting part of my job!
What has kept me at Echo for 30 years?
I am proud to be a part of a human-centred organisation that thrives on its people, their intelligence, their passion, dedication to their clients and drive to provide the best support, caring for each other, having fun, working as one team – as one special family, commonly known as Echoistas, united in ‘aiming for better’.