Image Ruralsprawl, ?Brain? March 17, 2008 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.
This is for everyone who has been challenged to demonstrate a return on investment from PR or marketing.
If, intuitively, you find that a little dispiriting then it’s OK, not only is psychology on your side, neuroscience and biology are too.
A long time ago, I was in the final stages of trying to secure a contract from a prospect client. Everything had gone well, the chemistry, the pitch, the follow-up. Then the decision maker called up and said he wanted to meet to iron out some details in order to make the final decision and could we meet that evening in a nearby pub. No problem I said.
The reason for mentioning it took place a long time ago is that this was before mobiles were commonplace and neither of us had one.
The meeting was fine and we got on so well that the time slipped away and the client suddenly realised and said “I have to go call my wife to tell her I’ll be late, but before I do, the real question I need answering before I can appoint you is this…. How will I know if it’s working, if I’m getting value for money? Think about it and I’ll be back in two minutes.”
With that he went to find the payphone.
It’s the question you dread because it can’t be answered in any hard edged, data rich, evidence based, truly convincing way. How can you evidence future performance, when the future doesn’t send us data?
In the next two minutes I could either win it or lose it.
Everything was to play for. If I could answer the question right then I’d won the business. If, instead, I offered some waffle or I sounded unsure about our abilities to perform I might undermine all the confidence created in this nascent relationship.
I was still trying to think of how to answer when back comes the client and says “That’s all sorted, my wife understands.”
In a moment of inspiration and without thinking it through I said “How do you know?”
“What do you mean, how do I know what?”
“How do you know that your wife isn’t really pissed off at you about being late and in reality your dinner’s in the dog?”
“I just know, why?”
“Some things you just know and it’s no different with your PR, you just know”
He paused….“OK, you’ve won the business”
The inability of the client to articulate his answer to my question is the critical point here. He was struggling for words to describe his absolute conviction that his reading of the situation was right and everything was right back home.
This was his limbic brain at work. The part of the brain which governs higher value functions like trust and empathy on which fundamental decisions are made but lacks the ability to describe them.
Let that thought sit there for a moment and then start to ponder the consequences for designing a measurement system for what businesses most strive for – to be trusted, is processed and judged by the part of the brain that cannot adequately say why this trust exists.
Back to the limbic brain for a moment.
Neuroscience tells us that the limbic brain is that part which assesses whether we can trust something, providing us with a powerful even unstoppable emotional response (it’s why you see spectators at events all holding their heads when a player misses). But, crucially, it is a response that has no language or reasoning (which are processed by the cerebral cortex, which deals with rational decisions)
In his bestselling book, “Start With Why” author Simon Sinek powerfully describes that the most inspirational leaders and the most successful brands connect with and stimulate an emotional response more than a rational response which can be both consistently articulated and codified and this is the heart of the measurement conundrum.
He gives Apple as the perfect example of a brand that plugs straight into our limbic brain, probably better than any other. A Dell, he writes, might have a better specification than a competing Apple product, it will certainly be a lot cheaper and (in my opinion at least) it will have better customer support. But what it won’t do is make the user feel special, feel that he or she has made a smarter decision for reasons that are about them, not the product itself.
Those reasons might be to do with wanting to feel that they are not a corporate drone, that they are creative and individualistic, or rebellious. Whatever is the primary reason it is to do with self-image that is by definition unique to the user and certainly not measurable by any known standard. (Other than their willingness to pay a premium for an Apple product over another with comparable and rationally measurable performance specifications)
The conundrum is this.
The highest goal of marketing is the unmeasurable – the goodness of fit between what a brand promises and its relevance to an individual; a unique jumble of intangibles like trust, empathy and passion and loyalty.
If it is the case that the better you are at your job, the less measurable your efforts, what is the value of measurement other than at a fairly trivial level?
Measurement has an important role, which is to allow us to compare between options, the click rate for one piece of content or a design over another for example.
But to declare that everything is measurable or parrot that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” is absolutely missing the point of why your primary objective.
That seems to me to be a complete and quite easily measurable failure of measurement.