Earned media might be invisible to your web analytics

One of the questions that consistently comes up about the power of earned media and PR is how accurately it can be measured. The answer to this question depends on how you’re gathering data. If you’re relying solely on clickstream data and web analytics, chances are your data is woefully inaccurate – and you may be making poor marketing decisions based on that information.

Here’s an example. If we look in our web analytics at conversions for the quarter to date, we see that using standard last-touch attribution, Search rules the roost, followed by direct traffic (which is Google’s catch-all for “we don’t know”), then referral traffic, social media, and email:


So far, so good. The logical conclusion from this data would be to beef up our search efforts, since it’s clearly working well, right? Perhaps if we want to get ambitious, we could look at where traffic sources come from before they convert to see if it reflects what our conversion data looks like. In this case, search still rules the roost, though other channels bring in more traffic than they do conversions, which means we shouldn’t discount them from our strategy, particularly if new audience is an important metric:


Right then, I’ll go and tell our CEO, Todd Defren, that we’re betting the cart in the coming year on search. This would be a reasonable assumption based on what you’ve seen, wouldn’t it?

Except I’d be wrong. You’d be wrong if that were your guess. Here’s why. We take our own advice and ask this most important question when you fill out the contact form on our website:


This is arguably one of the most important questions you can ask – and it’s important that it be a free-form list, not a pre-populated list (which can create biases). What do we find in our data, in our database, when we look at the responses to this question? A lot of noise. In order to process it, I went through the responses, one by one, and tagged them by which channel I thought matched most closely to the answer given.

In the data was an entirely new category that is completely invisible to web analytics: earned offline media. Responses such as “A friend told me”, “Colleague”, “Saw you at a conference”, “Recommendation”, and “Word of Mouth” filled this category, all things that are invisible to web analytics. I built a new chart based on the tagging, and here’s the breakdown:


Notice how search has now declined to one third of conversions? Notice how offline earned media, the orange slice, is a full 20% of our conversions for the quarter? That was completely invisible to our web analytics, and had we made 2014 budget allocations and decisions without taking that into account, we would have overfunded some marketing channels and underfunded others. The reality is that earned media – our PR efforts on behalf of SHIFT, from events to brand building – account for 20% of our lead generation. Had we relied solely on our web analytics, we would never have seen that and might have made the seemingly logical choice to prune our internal PR budget – and then wondered why revenues in 2014 were down the same 20%.

Take away two lessons from this: first, always ask people how they heard about you. You will often get responses that will surprise you and enlighten you about what’s really working. Second, don’t blindly rely on web analytics and clickstream data. There is more to understanding your audience than just what they click on – and a significant portion of your revenue could rely on that understanding, as ours does.

Disclaimer: As with all things data, your mileage may and should vary. This is based on our internal data and is representative of only our data and audience.

Christopher S. Penn
Vice President, Marketing Technology

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Posted on November 14, 2013 in Marketing, Metrics, Public Relations, Strategy

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About the Author

Christopher S. Penn has been featured as a recognized authority in many books, publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times, BusinessWeek and US News & World Report, and television networks such as PBS, CNN, CNBC, Fox News, and ABC News for his leadership in new media and marketing. In 2012 and again in 2013, Forbes Magazine recognized him as one of the top 50 most influential people in social media and digital marketing; Marketo Corporation named him a Marketing Illuminator, and PR News nominated him as Social Media Person of the Year. Mr. Penn is the Vice President of Marketing Technology at SHIFT Communications, a public relations firm, as well as co-founder of the groundbreaking PodCamp New Media Community Conference, and co-host of the Marketing Over Coffee marketing podcast. He is an adjunct professor of Internet marketing and the lead subject matter expert and professor of Advanced Social Media at the University of San Francisco. He’s the author of the best-selling book Marketing White Belt: Basics for the Digital Marketer.

Great Piece.. Definitely think the new focus on actual customer experience is going to make looking at data through this lens increasingly important. 

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