It’s funny (perhaps even ironic) that so much of our communication ultimately boils down to numbers. Many of us asked at some point in our early education: why do I need to learn math when I want to be a writer/journalist/PR professional? And yet here we are, back at the numbers. The reason for this is that numbers don’t lie. They can certainly be manipulated, but numbers are tangible evidence of what works or does not work in our communication strategies. KD Paine says on page 12 of Measuring Public Relationships that “data at your fingertips saves time in deciding what media outlets to target.” Many people jump to use a new tool, such as Twitter, because it is trendy or seen as universally effective without understanding why or how it can work for their business. Social media is currently a popular trend, but it is not a panacea; in some cases, traditional advertisement may still be more effective. But, the only way to know what definitely works and doesn’t work is to analyze the numbers.

Companies frequently measure blindly and without an objective, but the metrics must match the mission to be effective. Numbers mean nothing without context; if a company’s target audience is elderly women, measuring teenage male’s activity will not help, and without a proper baseline the numbers are useless. 100 page views in a day is exciting to a new blogger, but downright dreadful for a major corporation accustomed to thousands of views per day. Along these lines, the company should have a clear idea of who comprises their target audience so that they know what specific criteria to measure. They should then set reasonable benchmarks; a start-up cannot expect to generate the same results as a well-established company, but they can still set improvement goals within their reach.

Paine makes an interesting point that measuring a company’s reputation is not the same as managing it; this seems to go against all the popular buzz claiming that understanding a company’s reputation will allow them to improve their business. Paine’s point is that a good reputation is desirable, but developing the relationships behind it is more important. Reputation, the company’s external and overarching relationship with the public, is just one relationship of many. A good reputation does not equal conversions. A brand with 100% satisfaction from a very small group of consumers may not be as successful as one with mixed reviews from a large number of consumers. Happy customers and positive reviews can be excellent crowd-sourcing and result in word-of-mouth marketing, but this can only get a company so far; the company needs to develop new relationships on their own.

Guest speaker Holly’s point that the site visited previously is not always the best indicator of conversions is an interesting one from my personal, professional view. I am an intern at a recipe sharing website. One of my responsibilities is to maintain the site’s Twitter feed. Every morning, our CTO emails metrics and statistics from the previous day. I pay attention to the traffic Twitter drives to the site and what the most searched for recipes and food terms were, as often they are the ones I tweet. Barbecue has been a popular search recently, as have seasonal fruits and vegetables; it’s important to understand why folks are searching for these particular terms. Perhaps they saw a Burger King ad on Facebook, visited AllRecipes (a competitor), didn’t find anything palate-pleasing, performed a Google search, and then came to us. Who knows. Regardless, understanding the reason for the search is crucial for increasing future traffic.

The internet may not even be the best indicator of why people search for particular foods. Many searches are driven by what produce is in season or what the weather is like in a specific area; when it’s chilly outside, people will be more likely to crave thick, hearty soup than a light salad, and when it’s sunny and warm, they are more likely to fire up the grill. This sort of motivation is very difficult to measure via computer-based metrics. Some visitors may visit a website that tells them what is in season and then visit our site to find recipes, but most are probably just going to the grocery store or farmer’s market and buying what’s available. This is where the listening factor comes in. Monitoring what people say on Twitter or in blogs may be the best way to define the intangible. Thus, we can quantify qualitative information and use the numbers to our advantage.