As has become evident over the years, the changes in technology that have done the most to transform our lives rarely have been predicted. Science fiction films of the 1950s were long on spaceships but sparse on the computers that would alter every aspect of human activity. In the 1990s, who would have thought that making a phone call would become the third or fourth most valuable function of a mobile phone? Doc Brown’s DeLorean time machine had a flux capacitor but no GPS. Bill Gates alerted the tech world to social networks a couple years before they ignited, but no one really anticipated Facebook and Twitter would supplant email.

Those of us who monitor, shape and work daily with technology communications already have realized that in applying current techniques for measuring public relations results—essentially, counting mentions, articles, circulation and dollar values—we fail to realize the greatest emerging value of technology: engagement.

Whereas we’ve employed technology to create, track, sort, deliver and store data over the past quarter century, we are now using it much more to engage with others. Social networks are the most obvious example of this shift (most noticeably as customer service reps engage directly with complaining customers before their tirades go viral). But we also are using tech to transform presentations into engagement sessions, to play games with newfound competitors across the globe, to find life partners on dating sites, to engage with brands through geo-locational apps and QR codes, and to gather
the opinions and reviews of others before we buy a product or engage with a health professional.

As a result, PR professionals now are developing methods to measure engagement. We’re totaling followers, likes, comments, reviews and other feedback and attempting to analyze them for positive/negative/neutral tonality, momentum, positioning in search results, repeat traffic, and other factors. However we cut it, though, we’re still creating numerical indexes and counting things: how many positive comments, how many listings above us on the Bing page, how many click-throughs, how many referred visits to our website, how many positive articles, how many subscribers to our feeds, and so on.

Today is no different from past technology eras; we’re unlikely to be able to predict how we eventually will be measuring the success of our efforts in the years to come, because technology and public attitudes will change so much. But it’s a safe bet that we’ll learn to stop counting and start listening. Of course, we continue to engage within social networks, but here are four predictions for other ways (some of them, extensions of conventional marketing techniques) that successful measurement will be defined in the next version of PR practices, using engagement to measure engagement quality and context, rather than quantity:

  1. B2B follow-through: PR practitioners will seek a more longitudinal perspective on business-to-business campaigns. Currently measurement in this arena is segmented: a placement in a trade publication is measured in terms of its tone and circulation, a trade show booth tallies numbers of visitors and business cards collected, a new-business prospect is categorized by its urgency and fit. In the future, PR specialists will follow individual companies and executives through the entire engagement process, determining who has read the trade pub article, whether it motivated that individual to attend the trade show and visit the client’s booth, and how that may have translated into a new-business opportunity.
  2. Audience interactions: PR pros place clients on speaking agendas so that they gain thought-leadership credentials and then measure the presentation’s impact largely by media coverage. Increasingly, PR practitioners will engage directly with audience members immediately after thought-leadership events to determine how the speaker may have influenced opinions and the likelihood of audience members’ contacting the speaker in the future for a business engagement.
  3. Shopping-venue conversations: PR professionals will spend much more time connecting directly on site with window shoppers and customers to ask them how they heard about a new product or their opinion of a new service. These conversations will be interpolated to gauge the impact of PR awareness campaigns and product launches.
  4. Commentary on media reports: Instead of only monitoring comments posted at online media sites, PR practitioners will initiate and join these conversations, identifying themselves and subtly seeking answers to how a media report “moved the needle” in one direction or another. In effect, PR practitioners may create a mini-forum addressing a specific news report to measure its impact.

This sort of anecdotal sampling, of course, will be far less comprehensive in volume than counting hits and placements, but they will be far more valuable to the client and to the PR practitioner who can demonstrate how a campaign has influenced its target audience. If we intend to measure engagement, we will need to work harder to engage, not just stand back and total the individuals passing through the measurement gate.

— Steve Friedman is the director of marketing communications at Airfoil Public Relations, a high tech PR agency with offices in Detroit and Silicon Valley.