PR, Social & Media Measurement: Opportunities and Challenges

2014 was a big year for Cision, a “media intelligence” provider. First the company merged with Vocus, a public relations software company, in June. (Vocus had acquired press release distribution service PRWeb in 2006 and e-mail and social media marketing provider iContact in 2012.) Then in November, Cision bought Visible Technologies, a social intelligence vendor. And in March, Cision closed the acquisition of a UK media intelligence provider, Gorkana, although interestingly, the deal has led to Cision’s divestment of its Cision UK and Vocus UK business units.

To me, this mergers & acquisitions trail makes sense. The combined companies offers publication, marketing, and measurement tools, across social, online, and e-mail channels. In a multi-channel world, a role in disseminating content and ability to track consumption are assets. Do both, and you can do each better.

I’m keenly interested in PR and media measurement and in social intelligence as well. Yet measurement standards, for instance those put out by the Public Relations Society of America, which in the sentiment analysis realm seem to focus on keywords and positive/negative/neutral valence, have been hard pressed to keep up with actual uses enabled by rapidly advancing technologies. Talking to actual practitioners — for instance, Cision Information Specialist Ann Feeney — is a great way to understand what’s possible, what’s practical, and what’s in store in the measurement realm.

Ann will be speaking at the up-coming Sentiment Analysis Symposium, on “Emotional Spectrum, Intensity, and Action Indicators,” that is, predictive sentiment analysis that goes beyond positive/negative polarity. Ann graciously agreed to participate in an interview, to discover her views on —

PR, Social & Media Measurement: Opportunities and Challenges

Ann Feeney of Cision
Ann Feeney of Cision

Seth Grimes> What synergies are there common to PR, social, and media measurement — related to measurement standards, analysis techniques, and business use cases?

Ann Feeney> The lines between PR, social media, and other media measurement are blurring, which makes sense since ultimately, they’re all about whether messages were successfully communicated to the intended audience. We’re also seeing more blurring between marketing and PR measurement, since while marketing success is measured in how many people purchased a product or service, it’s the total perceptions that drive the decision to purchase. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a great example of how marketing and PR tie together and how you need both sides of the picture to understand the audience’s perceptions. For example, you’d want to measure how a company is perceived as a good steward of the environment or as responsive to human rights, and then to measure how much that affects the company’s financial success.

Seth> Are PR, social, and media measurement at a do-it-yourself point, or are the functions so specialized that most brands will continue to rely on agencies for assistance?

Ann> That depends on the client, their resources, their goals, and their needs. (I’m a professional researcher, of course most of my answers are going to be “it depends!”)

Many individual functions can be do-it-yourself on a small scale. For example, you can easily track who retweeted a particular message. But understanding patterns over time, how different audiences across different media responded, and comparing that to other messages that you’ve tweeted isn’t an easy do-it-yourself. Tools for analysis and measurement are only going to get better and more sophisticated, and at least in the near future, more complicated to run and to support.

Do you find that clients typically have a good understanding of what’s possible technically, and how to find the best technical approach for their business needs?

We have clients on every range of the spectrum of understanding what’s feasible and what’s going to be the strongest fit for their needs. Some are leaders in the measurement world while others are just getting started.

Your SAS15 talk is titled “Sentiment analysis by emotional spectrum, intensity, and action indicators.” From your point of view as a  researcher, how do sentiment ratings restricted to a positive/negative range fall short?

There are several reasons:

  1. Even knowledgeable humans can disagree on the sentiment of a statement or group of statements. Depending on the scales they’re using, 85 percent agreement is about as good as it gets. A metric that has 15 percent variance at best isn’t a good stand-alone tool.
  2. There’s not always a reliable correlation between sentiment and business metrics. For example, you’d think that movie sales and social media sentiment about that movie would correlate very closely, but across several studies, the correlation isn’t consistent.
  3. Studies also show that different kinds of emotions have different kinds of effects. Anger, for example, is more contagious than many other emotions, according to various research studies. So if you’ve got an issue that’s making people angry, that’s going to spread more than something that makes them sad, both in terms of content and the spread of the emotion, even though they’re both negative sentiments.

But most importantly, by itself, positive and negative sentiment doesn’t inform action. Practical research has to answer the question, “So what?” and sentiment analysis as a standalone doesn’t answer that question.

What do you mean by “action indicators”?

Action indicators show what people are saying that they’ll do in response to something or what they want an organization or person to do.

How do you identify likely actions in text sources?

If you’re examining a specific topic, such as the Charleston church shootings, you use your knowledge of the event to look for specific concepts. For example, mentions of the Confederate flag or gun control are very likely to be associated with action indicators. You can also look for verbs such as should, ought to, or must, if you’re looking for overall analysis or to find less obvious indicators. You can also look for future-focused verbs such as might, would, could, or will, to measure possible future actions.

Can you provide a quick example or two of success stories, organizations that realized positive ROI through text and social analytics?

The 2012 Obama campaign used some of our tools to track issues in the swing states and understand which messages resonated most with voters in those states. They combined demographics with the social media to identify persuadable potential voters.

A pharmaceutical company analyzed what people who want to quit smoking are saying online. These smokers felt that nobody was acknowledging that quitting is hard and that they needed support and understanding. The company focused its messaging on those aspects and got a definite increase in sales.

On the flip side, what are the most significant unmet challenges related to PR, social, and media measurement?

From a purely technical aspect, integrating multiple languages is a challenge. Many Asian languages don’t use white spaces to delineate words, for example, so that requires a whole new approach to tokenizing languages for machine analysis, for systems that are based on languages that use white spaces. Metaphors are notoriously difficult for machine translation. Aside from languages, the growth and decline of new media platforms create technical challenges as well.

From the purely analytical perspective, there are so many variables in how opinions are created and how people act on those. We can’t easily divide audiences into control and subject groups. Of course, these issues are common to all the social sciences, so at least we’ve got company. There’s also the lag factor for correlations, especially because we can’t measure how many or which total messages an audience is exposed to, but that issue is much more solvable as we get better tools for exploring data.

What advice do you have for organizations that want to ramp-up or expand their measurement efforts? Should they focus on new information sources, on refining their analyses, on better understanding the profiles of social posters, or something else?

The single piece of advice I’d give is actually from the nonprofit evaluation field. Develop your logic model of the change you want to create. If you aren’t measuring the right thing, then you can do the most sophisticated analyses from the cleanest and most complete data in the world, and it still won’t be the best answer for you.

Thank you Ann!

Meet Ann at the 2015 Sentiment Analysis Symposium, July 15-16 in New York. If you’re particularly interested in PR, social, and media measurement, you will want to attend Stephen Rappaport’s workshop on Social Media Metrics and Measurement and presentations that include A Comprehensive Research Approach to Customer Understanding by Anjali Lai, Forrester Research. These are clearly interesting times for in social and online media, for those of us interested in sentiment and the spectrum of social signals.

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