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When It Comes to Media Value: Show Me the Money

I’m starting to admit that I’m getting old, well, “older” anyway. I started in earnest in agency PR in 2010, and the tools we used, the results we achieved and client expectations were all very different. Fast-forward to today and law firm marketing departments are ever more “professionalized” and increasingly populated with B-school alums who ask incisive questions and look for actionable metrics.

Historically, law firm media relations KPIs have boiled down to a handful of rudimentary “measurements”:

A new client called after reading a thought leadership-oriented piece you placed in a trade magazine.

This is like winning the content lottery. There’s rarely such a bright and direct line between PR and new business, but when there is, this is the sort of success story PR pros tell for years.

One of our more demanding or biggest rainmaking attorneys won an award, was quoted or published.

Activity of this nature is the backbone of many law firm PR programs and the dynamic remains time-eternal. However, keeping a proverbial and perennial simmering pot(s) from boiling over is not a strong measurement of media program success.

The PR team reports the firm’s program is “doing great” and cites the “data,” a counting of total firm mentions (or clips) broken down and analyzed: “22 total. That’s three more than last year: we must be doing something right!”

“Doing great” is relative, subjective and pretty empty. Discerning minds should seek details. “Your 401K is doing great!” is a lot less meaningful than, “Your 401K is up 8% this year, 20% over the past five years, and we project – with modest assumed growth of 5-8% – that you will have a million dollars in your account when you retire at 65.”

Clip counting means little for professional services “brands” in today’s noisy and crowded media marketplace. Quantity of placements can be easily (and pointlessly) juiced by using paid (or free) newswires and focusing on submission- or membership-based online placements (the “low-hanging fruit,”) not to mention clipping totals organically fluctuate with the firm’s business activity (e.g., high-profile trials, deal flow, lateral activity). Unlike consumer brands that benefit from sheer quantity of exposure, law firms benefit from quality – reaching high-value (in terms of business development) target audiences – far more than quantity.

We Don’t Live in a World of Widgets or Donuts

The season of rabid consumerism is upon us. Each year, in addition to shopping for others, I find myself succumbing to temptation and indulging in personal purchases (despite a firm “no-buying-things-for-yourself” rule imposed by the wife). Relative to the law firm and professional services realm, the business-to-consumer (B2C) “funnel” is infinitely cleaner and the price points are (generally) multiples lower. This is to say selling widgets or donuts is very different than forging multi-year, multi-disciplinary law firm client relationships. But nearly every line of thinking – from the “funnel” sales model to how media value is calculated – imposes the B2C playbook on the business-to-business (B2B) world.

The professional services sector involves multiple “transactions” that occur, in essence, every day. It’s much closer, although, not identical to a subscription model. Many relationships have a “base” level of activity that sometimes spikes up with deals, litigation, employment issues, etc. In the donut world, while a company is no doubt working to mint loyal, daily regulars, they are foremost trying to sell a donut. That’s it, and maybe some coffee – leading to this, somewhat simplified, breakdown:

For the Donut Seller

If I want to sell a lot of donuts, I need to reach a lot of people. My audience is very large, as my price point is very low. My product is simple (with all due respect to the cronut).

For the Law Firm

If I want to generate new business by bringing in clients, I need to reach discrete groups of people that can hire me. My audience is limited, and my price point high. My product is complex and specialized.

The donut seller’s media activity and its value in dollars are very different than the law firm’s.

The donut seller is primarily interested in raw eyeballs – spread the news of the new donut far and wide. Adults, teens and even kids who will bug their parents/guardians are all potential customers.

The law firm should be less interested in raw eyeballs (clip counting). Most adults who might buy a donut will have limited (if any) law firm relationships, and no toddler ever bugged their dad to enter into a retainer agreement. Law firms want to be in front of valuable, and carefully defined, audiences. These might include in-house counsel or industry-specific executives who are reached through leading trade outlets and top tier business media that appeal to these audiences (think New York Times, NPR, Washington Post, all-news radio stations).

Understanding this dynamic is critical to decoding the value of third-party media mentions in the professional services space. Finding workable and saleable (to marketing heads, operational executives and managing partners) data is the first step to establishing what media activity is “worth.”

With a Framework, Structure Takes Shape

In getting to good data around PR value, firms must start with the basics – accurately tracking all media mentions involving the firm (including the proactive ones as well as the tangential ones).

From there, one can assign reasonable ad-equivalency dollar values, undergirded by transparent formulas, setting up the ability to say that media coverage generated X dollars of ad-equivalent publicity last month, last quarter, last year, etc.

Ad-equivalency value is exactly what it sounds like: what is the value of this “earned” editorial coverage if we instead had purchased it as “paid” ad space. In addition and to account for the implied third-party credential that comes with “earned” coverage (readers consistently report that non-paid editorial content is perceived as more impactful), a multiplier (generally 3- to 6X) is applied to the ad total in determining the PR value.

For a firm that transitions from, “We had 33 clips last year and 34 this year,” to, “We estimate that our media activity generated the paid advertising equivalent of $230,000 in 2019 and $333,000 in 2020,” a much greater understanding of the value of PR efforts and firm spend ensues.

The firm is paid in dollars by clients. It pays its employees in dollars. This same scale should be applied to measuring media value. “Clips” is a measurement without meaning. Media value is an important and emerging legal marketing KPI.

…And Comparisons Are Possible

For law firms that are actively looking at the ad-equivalent dollar value of their PR activity, the next step is to monitor and track close competitors – and in getting to “apples-to-apples” comparisons, it’s critical to choose “competitor” firms that are relatively similar in attorney head count, geography and practice breadth.

Applying the dollar value of firm A’s publicity to firm B’s, communicators, marketing heads and managing partners can more accurately compare communications efforts. When the numbers show a disparity, a deeper dive may show that firm B had a series of valuable “hits” on national media (yielding big audiences and large ad-equivalent dollar values). These sorts of “signature” moments are part luck (timing) and part circumstance (topic), but never happen without proactivity. You can’t catch lightning in a bottle if you don’t even have a bottle. They typically occur as irregular spikes tied to comprehensive and constant background media efforts.

Communicators simply can’t answer the question of how a firm is doing relative to its peers by either citing clip numbers or reverting to subjective sales-talk. Such a dodge might have worked when marketing was the domain of a particularly interested (but otherwise distracted) rainmaker partner rather than a team of dedicated and trained professionals.

New Realms of Measurement, Launching Campaigns

By getting a good sense of ad-equivalent dollar value for media activity and relative performance compared to peers, communicators and marketers can move to adding more detail and focus to outreach. Clips can be labeled by sentiment: “positive,” “negative” and “neutral.” This is an important lens for viewing activity and gives an even deeper understanding of the value beyond dollars. A press release that mentions the firm’s name regarding a lease renewal is “neutral,” not yielding much either positively or negatively for the firm. A substantive byline article should be “positive,” as it credentials an attorney and positions the firm as thought-leaders. Allegations of misconduct by a firm partner should be labeled “negative.” Without understanding sentiment, a rough quarter in terms of public perception might be mischaracterized, skewing future comparisons because context was never applied.

Firms also can and should deploy subject-specific (and cross-practice) “campaigns” measuring outreach on topics and results yielded – in ad-equivalent dollars and readership. These “slices” of media activity can prove illuminating as priorities are determined.

Knowing a firm’s media value is essential and provides one answer to the question, “What are we getting for all this spend?” It also allows communications departments and outside agencies to stop using the nice-sounding but purely trust-based adage, “The PR we’re getting is very valuable.”

The response to such a dodge is simple: show me the money.

Originally published by the Legal Marketing Association (LMA) – Mid-Atlantic Region.

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