Batter Up: Sabermetrics Comes to Communications

By March 28, 2018 News & Viewpoints

Communicators are focused on measurement, and for good reason. As boardrooms and decision makers increasingly demand quantitative measurement from all areas of the organization and digital tactics rapidly expand the number of available measures for communicators and marketers, we’re finding more customers awash in numbers but often bereft of meaning. Just as Bill James’ popularization of Sabermetrics forever changed baseball, new expectations, capabilities and techniques for measurement are fundamentally changing the landscape for comms professionals.

Chart showing digital universe growth and companies mentioning AI in earnings calls

IDC / Bloomberg project that the amount of digital data in existence will reach 180 zettabytes (180 followed by 21 zeros) in 2025.

Full disclosure, I am a bit of a nerd when it comes to data and analytics. I can easily lose hours exploring user behavior in Google Analytics, reading about natural language processing or diving into the crosstabs of ad reports. For the quantitatively inclined, this is a golden age. However, as an industry friend recently reminded me, many of us in marketing like words and pictures a lot more than numbers. And fair enough – this article is for you.

In recognition of the start of the new baseball season, the most data-rich sport, allow me to torture a metaphor. Imagine that you are the general manager of a baseball franchise (The Boston Red Sox would, of course, be the only proper selection here, but it’s your fantasy, so go nuts). As the general manager, your job is to turn the club into a dynasty for the ages. To do this, you’ll need to track the progress of the team (your program) over multiple seasons, monitor each season’s roster performance (your campaign) to get the most out of your resources and work to maximize the performance of each player (tactic) on your team. Sound like a familiar challenge?

Just like that general manager, your communications measurement program needs to be able to examine different types of information to optimize performance at each level of your organization and provide meaningful feedback for the team to get the most out of your communications resources. Let’s take a look at each level of measurement and the lens that you can use to examine it.

The Program Lens

The program lens focuses on the long-term impact of your efforts. At this level, you can’t afford to get bogged down in the details. Reporting on (or looking at) the click-through rate of your ads or the coverage from a single press release isn’t the point – and probably won’t inform you much about your progress towards your goals anyway.

Giancarlo Stanton in a Miami Marlins jersey, holding a bat.

6’6″, 245 lb. externalities like this are definitely tough to manage …

In baseball terms, think of this as your progress towards building a dynasty. Individual balls and strikes aren’t what matter here – you need to understand the big picture.

The challenge communicators (and general managers) face when evaluating program performance is that no effort exists in a vacuum. There are a lot of external variables that will impact performance (the Yankees signing Giancarlo Stanton in the off season for instance?) and you’re going to have a hard time isolating the specific impact of your efforts in the noise.

To combat this challenge, it helps if your goals are clarified in a way that allows you to track the relative performance of your program (the W-L record season over season or the share of voice vs. your competition) as well as the absolute performance (Did you make the playoffs? Did you garner more placements this year than last?) to keep things headed in the right direction.

Program Lens Key: Keep your focus at 30,000 feet. The trends over time matter more for measuring progress here than any individual number.

The Campaign Lens

Considering the variety of tactics in your communications plan to optimize their performance? You’re working with the campaign lens. Campaign lens measurement is about finding the right balance to maximize your desired outcome (wins). Since resources (time, money, talent availability) are always finite, they need to be allocated carefully. Over the course of the season (campaign) for your general manager, the campaign lens is used to make sure the team has the best combination of players to minimize its weaknesses and maximize performance. Should you allocate more resources to the bullpen because you’re getting killed in the late innings? Is your display campaign not moving the needle? How’s the offensive production of your lineup looking? In baseball (and communications), one superstar in a team full of underperformers probably isn’t likely to get the job done, so managers are forever working to improve individual performance (see “The Tactical Lens”) as well as put the best combination of players (tactics) on the field.

Effective resource management for your time, attention and financial assets is the goal here. When you look at the campaign (team) as a whole, is there an area or individual tactic that is underperforming? Should you put more attention to that area to try to bring up its performance or go ahead and make a change to the mix of players (tactics) on the field? Campaign measurement gives you the information you need to make adjustments along the way – sometimes when a player underperforms, making a trade before the deadline is a key for the stretch run.

Campaign Lens Key: Don’t fall into the trap of looking at tactical metrics here. Find the performance indicators that show you’re on the right track, know what each part of your campaign is supposed to be contributing and work the levers of your resource allocation to get the most out of what you’ve got. 

The Tactical Lens

No player or marketing tactic performs perfectly 100 percent of the time. The tactical lens is what you want to apply to eek out more performance from each element of your campaign. OPS slipping for your left fielder? Maybe some extra time in the batting cage is called for. Open rates dropping for your drip email campaign? Could be time to take a look at the subject lines. Velocity dropping for your ace closer? Might need to check with the trainer.

When you focus in on tactical measurement, you’re able to evaluate the individual player (tactic) using the most appropriate measure(s), even if it might not be applicable to other elements of the team (campaign). Just like you wouldn’t judge a pitcher’s effectiveness based on their batting average, you can’t measure the performance of every tactic the same way. Tactical measurement is all about helping the player (tactic) realize their maximum capacity – whatever their ceiling may be.

Tactical Lens Key: Test. Rinse. Repeat. With individual tactics, establishing and testing hypotheses on what may improve performance is easier. Whether it’s A|B testing different creative, trying varied approaches to your pitch points or changing up your conversion funnel a bit, see what you can do to get more out of your investment in each effort. And remember, investment doesn’t just mean $ – your time and attention are more valuable anyway. Know what the tactic is supposed to do and design experiments around that outcome. 

Ready to Take the Field?

With so many things that are measurable in modern communications, it can be easy to lose track of the question you’re trying to answer while exploring the many layers and dimensions of data available to you. To combat this tendency, I encourage you to consider these three lenses of analysis when you approach your next measurement project. Your dynasty building awaits, batter up.

(Go Sox).

Travis Austin is a senior vice president and senior partner in Stratacomm’s Washington, D.C. office. Want to read more posts like this? Great! Stay tuned for more insights on the program, campaign and tactical lenses. In the meantime, here’s Travis’ four tips to build a smart PR measurement program.