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PR people are underestimating their impact on sales, says Trendkite CEO Erik Huddleston

I recently caught up with TrendKite CEO and PR measurement evangelist Erik Huddleston. Like most other PR evaluation experts, he believes integrated measurement is the future. What is interesting about Erik’s approach is that TrendKite is one of the few service-as-a-software (SaaS) digital media measurement solutions built with PR people in mind. TrendKite was built for earned media and integrates into paid and owned.

Most of the hundreds of SaaS tools out there were built for paid and owned media and overlap into earned. Although I have been shown around TrendKite, I haven't used it, so this article is not an endorsement for its usability (although a tool review should follow in a few weeks’ time).

Ben Smith: To what extent do you believe PR people are currently underestimating their impact on sales?
Erik Huddleston: They’re underestimating it substantially. Here’s why: imagine that you’re sitting with a marketing team and the CMO asks each person to quantify their contribution. The SEO team reports better search rankings – driven in large part by the high-domain-authority backlinks from earned media. The web team reports increased traffic – and much of it is driven by PR and earned media, whether as direct traffic (the person reads an article and then types the company name into the browser) or as search traffic (the person reads an article and then searches for the company by name).

The data across TrendKite’s client base shows that, in aggregate, PR and earned media influences a large percentage of sales. Because we don’t require a backlink for attribution, we can see that, and it shows that PR is one of the best ways to reach the “above-the-funnel” prospects who aren’t yet aware of your product or searching for a solution.

BS: Why do you think PR people are behind the attribution curve compared to their marketing colleagues?  
EH: Historically, PR has focused on measurement – how do I measure the outputs, outtakes, and outcomes from my PR activities? That’s because the legacy of PR measurement has been based on things like counting press clippings, which is basic measurement. So PR people often say they have a measurement problem when what they really have an attribution problem, and that means that they’re not looking at the problem the same way that their marketing peers are.  

BS: Why do you believe PR has an attribution problem not a measurement problem?  
EH: Sometimes I think of PR as the “dark matter” of the marketing universe. Because earned media combines third-party credibility with massive reach, it’s almost always one of multiple touches in any sale. As an example, if someone reads an article in the news about your company, and then sees a banner ad about your company and clicks it, we give the attribution to the banner ad. But the banner ad didn’t create the consumer’s motivation – the press article did. So attributing 100% of the sale to the banner ad is like attributing 100% of the sale to the telephone that the customer used to dial in. The phone, and the banner ad, are just conduits – it was the article that motivated the customer.

PR doesn’t lack for things that can be measured – from mentions to share of voice to readership to key message pull-through to social engagement and amplification, we can always measure – and if we benchmark, we can give context and show progress. As important as those things are, they don’t answer one fundamental question: what was the outcome from the activity? If you think of the outputs/outtakes/outcomes framework for PR measurement, impact on the organisation’s financial goals is the ultimate outcome. You can’t answer that question with just measurement; you need attribution.

BS: How is it possible to reliably measure multiple customer touch points across multiple channels along a customers purchasing funnel journey?  
EH: Solving this problem is, of course, the big issue in sales and marketing. The number one thing is to have reliable measurement and attribution for every touchpoint and for every channel. Once you have that measurement and attribution in place, you can start to understand the architecture of influence.  

As I mentioned, this is where PR often lags behind their marketing colleagues. That means that a vital piece of the puzzle is missing. In fact, it’s more than one piece – it’s every piece that was touched by PR, which is a lot of them. So it’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle when someone’s gone through the box and removed every piece with blue on it – there is no way you will get a complete picture. Solving that, so we have a complete picture of attribution that shows the complete picture including PR impact, is what we’ve build TrendKite to solve.  

BS: Briefly, please talk me through the technology behind Trendkite – how does it grab journalist data and influencer data from the web? And how does it integrate with Adtech technology to enable integrated measurement across the most important media? And how do you understand the traffic and traffic flows between sites to enable accurate analytics of digital earned media?
EH: Our technology monitors everything that’s published from 4.7 million sources, extracts the key terms and concepts, and maps the relationships between them using machine learning and AI. That gives us an up-to-the-minute map of the earned media ecosystem, including the influencers and journalists and what they actually care about and write about.

We do use adtech technology as part of our solution, but it’s only a part. When you consider the number of consumers who block ads, the fact that over 50% of most ad networks’ traffic is fake traffic from bots, and the implications of GDPR changing data privacy laws, ad tech is not a complete solution. Understanding digital influence across the PR universe is a data-science problem, not just a measurement problem. So yes, we lean on ad tech as part of that, but we have multiple data sources involved as well, giving us a 99% confidence level.

BS: Bearing in mind that most purchasing decisions involve multiple channels, is the cost-per-acquisition measurement by each channel a false measurement principle, based in theory, not practice?
EH: It’s not a false measurement, but – unless you sell a low-consideration, transactional product – it’s not a complete one. Your attribution model should be mapped to your sales cycle and buyer’s journey. If a typical buyer’s journey for you involves researching in blogs and publications for three months before buying, your attribution model should reflect that complexity. You can’t do that unless you can map all the touchpoints, though, and it’s great that PR is finally able to do so.

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