Who’s Afraid of a Little Evaluation?

If producing spot-on, graphically appealing, dynamic messages is the cherry on top of every professional communicator’s list of things they love to do, measuring results is the pit inside it.

But as Yogi Berra once said:

You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.”

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If you want to claim you are a strategic communicator—and what communicator doesn’t—showing a relationship between your efforts and your organization’s success is essential. Once upon a time, communicators might have gotten away with saying their goal was to produce XYZ communication on time and under budget. But this implies that the purpose of communication is simply to exist. And it’s not.

The purpose of your efforts is to affect your organization’s mission—whether it’s selling more widgets, gaining more members or curing cancer.

When you start to look at measuring what matters, process indicators can help you learn how internally efficient you are, activity indicators can tell you how much communicating of what types of messages you did and relationship indicators can tell you something about the ongoing level of engagement you have with key audiences.

But the real sticking point lies with results indicators. This is where you hope to show that your communication efforts helped your organization to achieve its goals and objectives.

For most communicators, especially those of us in nonprofit organizations, establishing a direct link between your communication products and the organization’s achievements is messy if not impossible. You can point to easily attainable social media metrics like Klout scores. But you don’t want to just measure what you can measure. For example, tracking lots of website hits is a great way to assess whether people came to your pages, but it doesn’t tell you if their visits were of any strategic value.

UMagazinology blogger and John Hopkins magazine editor, Dale Keiger, nailed it when he wrote: “This month’s most overworked meaningless statistic: Number of mentions something related to the school received on Twitter. Nothing says you’ve assumed your rightful place in the upper tier of the world’s academies of higher learning like 1,547 retweets.”

To combat this, you can go down the road of surveys, personal interviews and focus groups. Certainly there are instances when the time and expense for these kinds of evaluation tools can and should be justified. Even then, when it comes to showing cause and effect, communication efforts are more likely to influence attitudes or merely trigger the conditions in which a behavior or action can occur, than to be found directly responsible.

Directional alignment may be your answer.

Caroline Kealey, in her recent Communication World article “Real Value”, suggests that it is enough “to show that your communication efforts have been directionally aligned with other factors that collectively led to the achievement of a corporate goal.” She believes that an alignment of factors can imply a plausible causal connection.

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My department is involved in fundraising. So, a primary goal of all our communication strategies is to boost the number of gifts and givers. But the influence of a myriad of other strategies, from gala events to informal visits to countless hours spent on building one-to-one relationships, play their roles at the same time. According to Kealey, this is nothing to worry about. She believes communicators can make a compelling case that communication has contributed to organizational success with a well-presented set of directional alignment indicators.

In other words, we probably won’t ever be able to say that our communications caused a donor to make a gift, but we can probably make a case for the more we do X (say, communicate how our organization makes a positive impact on the world), the more we see Y kinds of results (say, donors who make inquiries about funding our programs).

But that doesn’t mean all of your measurements must be quantitative. Qualitative efforts such as the tone of an event or of media coverage, can point to communication success too.

As author and social media expert Philip Sheldrake says in another Communication World article “A Measure of Influence” (Yes, the January/February 2013 issue themed around Measuring What Matters was chockfull of great stuff!): “Reputation management does not actually mean managing reputation and brand management does not actually mean managing a brand. They mean actively attending to the business of influencing and being influenced such that the resultant beliefs or opinions held about us and our products are conducive to our achieving organizational objectives.”

Or as Albert Einstein once said:

Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”

Sadly, most communicators spend nearly all of their time and energy executing communications. A very small amount of effort goes into planning and of that almost none of the planning is spent on developing performance indicators. I believe this is primarily because we communicators are not particularly drawn to accounting. And traditional evaluation can start to look like a whole lot of bean counting in a hurry.

But, perhaps it doesn’t need to be so complicated, or onerous. Look at your organization’s mission and set a few simple result indicators to help you learn whether you helped it move the needle.

Evaluation does matter. Done right, it guides our efforts, helps us justify our results and gives us a place to start for the next trip.

What’s your opinion? Do you think directional alignment indicators would be enough for your organization to acknowledge a link between communication efforts and your organization’s accomplishments? Could it be enough to help you define and assess your strategy?

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