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Want ROI on your PR activity? Start by killing off AVE

Posted by Louise Moran on 7th June 2011

With all the belt tightening and budget squeezing going on in the PR world, we need accurate measurement more than ever. It’s not enough to know that coverage has been secured with a publication – we need to question whether influencers have actually read and processed the key messages. We need to also query whether the story resonated with a wider target audience and to dig deeper to measure whether a given piece of media coverage has actually made any tangible impact on a client’s core business objectives.

Any reputable PR agency knows that PR targets should be aligned with wider strategy and by the same token successful PR campaigns should be measured against clear standards and concrete goals. So why does the PR industry still insist on hiding behind old fashioned measurement systems such as the Advertising Value Equivalent (AVE)?

In simple terms, AVE measures column inches of editorial coverage and compares it to the cost that the publication would charge for similarly sized advertising space. Agencies then apply a multiplier effect to reflect the impartiality of editorial coverage over advertorial content. The result is an inflated figure, which will always show PR to be better than advertising.

There are three significant issues with AVE:

1) Apples and Oranges

Pitting advertising against PR is not comparing like for like. Advertising offers the opportunity to reach a high percentage of the target audience with one impactful, visually appealing campaign,whereas more often PR casts its net far and wide, promoting key messages and influencing perceptions across a wider range of media across a longer period of time. Rather than it being a choice of one or the other, there’s a time and a place for both in an integrated communications campaign. Planned effectively, both advertising and PR offer return on investment but can’t be assessed using the same criteria.

2) All PR coverage was not created equal

AVE ignores messaging and sentiment. I have seen occasions where a PR agency has claimed that a negative piece of coverage with a brief mention of their client is worth three times more than an ad of the same size. I’d like to see that argument stand up in any budget planning meetings.

3) Bad science

The multiplier effect is arbitrary and is extremely unscientific in its application – UK agencies often use a multiplier effect of 2.5 or 3, whereas in the US there are reports of a multiplier effect of between 6 and 15. I’d love to meet one of these agencies, mostly because such audacity is shocking but also to see if they can really keep a straight face justifying their calculations to clients.

At the European Summit on Measurement 2010 the great movers and shakers in the PR world put their heads together and proclaimed the death of AVE. A year later and Lisbon is gearing up to host the third annual event yet we seem no closer to a viable alternative.

You would expect a little less conversation and a little more action from the dynamos of the PR world. It’s time to scrap AVE once and for all and to persuade our clients that tying PR objectives to business strategy and tangible results is the only way to show that their PR budget is providing return on investment.

EML Wildifre will attend the PRCA Technology Group discussion on the latest thinking around PR programme evaluation on June 16th. PRCA members and EML Wildfire clients are welcome to attend:

Otherwise, check back on the EML Wildfire blog for highlights from the event.

Louise Moran