If you have any interest in PR measurement, you’ll probably have read about a recent educational initiative from AMEC, supported by various PR associations, to make yet another final effort to beat the zombie AVE metric out of existence. In the UK, the CIPR has gone even further, and pronounced that it will “ban the use of AVE by CIPR members”
This latest outpouring of apocalyptic angst is just the latest in a long list of anti-AVE initiatives and proclamations dating back more than 20 years.
Two key questions remain, though. Firstly, why is AVE still such a bete noir for the industry? Especially as recent AMEC research shows a significant decline in its use, although personal experience indicates this should be treated with a large pinch of salt.
The second, and more important question, though, is whether using AVE is really the mortal sin it’s claimed to be?
It’s important to stress, without ambiguity, that AVE really isn’t a good decision support tool. In an ideal world, measurement would focus exclusively on business outcomes (sales, votes, reputation, donations etc), not mere output metrics (of which AVE is an example). AVE is a deeply flawed metric – especially as it claims to measure something that it actually doesn’t. AVE measures ad cost, not value. Richard Bagnall (current Chair of AMEC) has written a useful summary of why the metric should be avoided.
But still, AVE remains in common use. Why should that be, given all the neagative press it receives? It’s continuing appeal to PR people is founded on a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a single score or number, so it’s (relatively) easy to measure over time, geographies, business units, product categories et al. Then it’s got a dollar sign against it – so ticks the C-suite financial accountability box. And let’s not forget it’s also very cheap – so it definitely ticks the budget box. And finally, it’s also so pervasive across organisations that it’s become a “safe” metric to use with unenlightened colleagues and the Board.
In answer to the second question, AVE carries a surprisingly strong correlation to certain business outcomes. There’s solid, though under-reported research (dating back to 2007) showing that, in certain circumstances, coverage volume does correlate to business outcomes. As AVE is fundamentally a volume measure (with ad rate and “PR multiplier” additions), we might say that AVE can therefor reflect limited business outcomes. The PR profession clings to AVE in part because it believe there is a relationship between rising or falling coverage levels and specific outcomes.
Of course, there are well-rehearsed and well-founded reasons to avoid AVE as a matter of best practice, and The Measurement Practice will never advocate for its use. AVE is, for instance, singularly ill-equipped to provide any predictive insight – it’s a rear-view metric, tracking past performance. And in a noisy, multi-mode and multi-channel market and communication environment, AVE by itself only shows a weak correlation to outcomes.
In the final analysis, though, eliminating AVE will only be achieved when measurement companies invest in developing innovative tools and metrics that are more directly relevant to business, and not just communications performance. The AMEC integrated metrics framework is a real step forward in this endeavour. Measurement companies need to take note that savvy organisations and companies are already shifting their use of measurement, well expressed in recent comments by Simon Skinner, head of communications UK & Ireland, Dell.
“You have to be very disciplined to make sure that the data is actually telling you something that is relevant to the business not just to you as a PR person, (…) that’s new for us because in the old world when we were growing up doing PR it was like coverage, hurrah! It doesn’t wash anymore.”
This new world, he notes, involves “delivering genuine insights, rather than spurious coverage reports. Information about audience behaviours, audience interest areas, about what competitors are doing, white space analysis, all that kind of stuff.”
AVE simply isn’t a metric that can drive business decisions. There are many other metrics, on the other hand, that do provide the basis for insight. AVE is a marginally useful performance measure, but insight-rich it ain’t.
The industry has been seeking for years to make measurement the basis of decision making. The continuing prevalence of AVE is testimony to our collective failure (users and measurement providers alike) to create new business- and customer-focused models and metrics that genuinely enhance and enrich business planning and decision-making. Only by offering better alternatives can we expect AVE to become redundant.
Moving the conversation away from this endless AVE obsession towards more dialogue about how PR can generate insight and decision support from practical, relevant and outcomes-focused measurement would benefit all who seek greater effectiveness for communications.
At the Measurement Practice, we help our clients focus on developing and utilising measures of success and insight that drive communications and business objectives. Pretty soon, we find, AVE simply withers on the vine. Clients as well as measurement suppliers have a mutual interest in moving beyond AVE – but simply legislating against its use or damning its users will inevitably fail.
It’s really about time for new thinking and new language on both sides.