Another interesting phenomenon is that measuring something can influence behaviours, particularly if incentives or disincentives are attached to compliance. Speed limits and body weights are cases in point and much studied by the constabulary and Weightwatchers respectively.
Corporates provide a treasure-trove of case studies about how behaviour can be changed by incentivising things, usually for bad rather than for good. A useful analogy is that of squeezing a balloon. Like most other closed systems, air moved from the squeezed part of the balloon ends up somewhere else in the balloon. Until the balloon bursts, of course.
A former employer of mine once happened to be New Zealand’s largest provider of rental housing. Properties that were vacant and available to let were deemed to be bad things, as the company had way too many of them, according to skilled political agitators. Local managers were incentivised to reduce this number and, in the first month of this new regime, the vacancy level plummeted. Suspiciously so. What had happened was rather than more needy families being housed, the vacancy number had been recategorised, the sort of numerical sleight-of-hand that accountants spend several years of university study becoming proficient at.
Some measurements can change markedly based on how precisely measured things are. Let’s look at New Zealand’s coastline as an example. This is 15,134km at mean high tide, the ninth-longest in the world, if one happens to be a cartographer. If one happens to be a curious and diligent snail with a very small yet accurate pedometer, then that distance will be considerably longer, as every boulder and stone en route will need to be slithered around.
Most of my career I have been involved with the practice of communication and marketing. Both of these entwined professions have forever debated the quantifiable impacts they have, particularly the benefits they leverage for the money invested in them.
According to the father of modern advertising, American John Wanamaker, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half”.
What Wanamaker eloquently summarises is the multiplier effect from the multi-channel approach marketers use to increase demand for their client’s widgets or services. Even comparatively modern channels, like direct marketing, are usually more effective when supported by mass advertising. Yes, a good campaign can take rightful credit for improving sales, but generally that’s about where credible analysis ends, as customers have generally been exposed to the marketer’s offer more than once through different channels.
Occasionally measurement bullshit ensues. In the PR space a measure called AVEs, or advertising value equivalents, has been bandied around for many years as some sort of credible measure. An AVE is belief that newspaper column inches (or broadcast media equivalents) filled with commentary about the issue or product in question has the same value as an advertisement of the same size placed on the same page. There is still some division in the PR world as to the value of an AVE, which is why a range of providers still make money producing them for clients while others, like me, think they are at best misleading, at worst bogus.
A variation on the AVE is to ascribe a positive, neutral or negative value to the published comments, again producing what I believe are largely meaningless results, usually captured and prepared at great expense, and acted on by nobody.
Little of what is published about an issue is within the control of an affected organisation or individual to influence. That’s a price we pay for having a “free” press. Subsequent coverage rarely gets the same prominence – even when the media outlet in question got something wrong.
Media channels and commentators may be able to be influenced at the margins, but a fundamental truth is that bad news is bad news. An organisation or individual, if they are concerned about that, should look at identifying the contributing factors behind those and changing things so that mistakes aren’t repeated. Or it could look to hire a Spin Doctor to wine and dine, reinforcing the belief that while a turd can’t be polished, it can be rolled in glitter.
Social media is now the new darling of relationship management and people are starting to look at ways that its effectiveness – and costs – can be assessed and valued. It has taken some time for these new channels to be accepted by managers as having real benefits. I think the key words there are “some time”. Relationships of any sort take “some time” to develop and the true value of a relationship is always hard to determine with little disagreement, as most divorce lawyers can attest.
A risk is that some people are looking to use social media as a communication channel, rather than as a relationship channel. I think that such a belief is mistaken and likely to end in tears. The emergence of things like AVEs for social media won’t be far away, as enterprising people look to make a dollar. Hopefully by then there will be a body of practitioners who understand the strategic benefits that come from strong relationships with customers and potential customers – the same people who know that the truth is to be found in many different measures, not just one.