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AVEs – useful benchmark or a complete lie?

The continuing existence of Advertising Value Equivalent (AVE) as a metric is something that few people in the PR world do not have an opinion on. Whether it’s the fundamental problem of aligning earned coverage with paid for advertising or the difficulty in convincing clients that it’s value is, at best limited, AVE debate persists.

Mark Weiner, Chief Executive Officer of PRIME Research Americas, and Founding Chartered PR practitioner Ella Minty recently debated the issues on Twitter and have kindly taken part on a Q&A to delve deeper in to the AVE and PR measurement debate.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of using AVEs as a PR metric?

EM: AVEs cannot and should not be used as a PR metric. The concept of putting an advertising value on a piece of earned media is simply crazy. The rules of advertising transparency today are far stricter than they were only 10 years ago and, while advertising has its defined place, in terms of credibility and behavioural change an advertorial is less powerful than an editorial, a Q&A or even an investigative piece. The so called ‘strengths’ come from the fallacy of ascribing a monetary value to media coverage and attempting to provide an ROI on the financial investment made with that PR exercise/brief.

MW: In my experience, awareness around the risks of AVE’s is rising and use is in decline but PR practitioners continue to apply them because they serve as a simple accessible performance indicator.  Although they survive against the good advice of those aiming to evolve, they are not a valid metric because they place a monetary value on something which holds no intrinsic worth.

Assuming that the AVE accounts for “intended messaging” only (positive content in target media), one can remove the financial association and find AVEs to be a useful performance surrogate.  Since the media base their advertising rates (different than values) on overall reach, target audience reach, size/length, placement and prestige, AVEs indicate that a large placement in a high target-reach prestigious media outlet contributes more than a placement in a “low value” outlet.  As an index, AVEs can reveal helpful benchmarking trends. The dangers come in two ways: 1) when PRs promote AVEs as having essential financial value; and 2) when AVEs are used in isolation and without qualification.

Do AVEs still have a role in a PR world that is struggling to align its measurement to organisational objectives? 

EM: No, they do not – they never should have had one to begin with. To be honest, using AVEs as a PR metric is also highly unethical because, if we strip it bare, it’s a lie and I’ll explain why: if a company is being trashed in the media and if we are to ascribe an AVE metric to that, how do you come up with the positive spin? How can anyone in the right mind and with a minimal professional competency and ethical backbone claim that the losses incurred by the organisation in question are only equivalent to the advertising value of the coverage? In fact, that company may have lost millions of pounds/dollars in contracts and they may have only made the 7th -8th page of a daily or a case study in a business magazine.

MW: Better measures are available, including those promoted by AMEC’s Integrated Evaluation Framework and those found in the Institute for Public Relations Measurement Commission archive.  If aligning PR measurement to organizational goals is the objective, there is no place for AVEs even for advertisers (that would mean that ad effectiveness would be measured on how much money was spent on ads rather than the response the ads generated which is ridiculous).  Within an organizational context, The Page Society and The Institute for Public Relations conducted a survey which revealed that while senior corporate executives demand measurement, PRs don’t know enough about measurement to respond.  And the executives don’t know enough about PR to offer guidance.  The result?  Stasis.

There’s a trap within the AVE acronym:  Value.   While PRs apply the terms “value” and “return on investment” interchangeably, there’s a material difference.  Values are subjective.  They change from one organization to another and even from one person to the next within the same organization. ROI is a quantitative financial measure devoid of subjectivity. By misusing the terms, PRs make the AVE transition and measurement alignment more difficult.  The profession must evolve but so must the critics who seek to raise all boats.

Is it the ‘advertising’ part that provokes ire among some PR professionals? If yes, why?

MW: In my opinion, the reference to advertising upsets some PR professionals because PR under the broader definition is much more than just media and marketing.

In his 2013 Public Relations Review essay “AVE: Public Relations Orphan Metric” on the history of AVEs, Tom Watson, PhD, references PR’s early days when advertising agencies delivered public relations services as a value-added media-centric offering.

Within that context, AVEs may have made sense but in the past 60 years, public relations has evolved to include internal communication, public affairs, government relations and other areas which extend beyond advertising-based media.

EM: The ‘advertising’ part does not bother me at all – it’s the concept that does. The value of PR measurement can be found only in the extent to which the PR efforts have reached their initial objectives. If the objectives are to be featured in various media outlets, then it’s absolutely fine although, as a matter of both principle and science of PR, media coverage is certainly not a sustainable objective but an output at best and a tactical tool used for strategic purposes.

There is a PESO model that is currently presented as best practice and while it may not be valid for all types of businesses and not-for-profits (and by this I do not mean just charities), paid media has its well defined role. But that ‘paid for’ content/advertorial can hardly be ascribed a ROI, the same as earned coverage can’t unless we track it all the way back to the purchase decision/behavioural change.

If a client is asking for AVEs how should you respond?

MW: Begin by asking the client about their objectives for the research overall.  Although the balance may change from one case to another, two elements drive most PRs when seeking measurement:  1) the desire to prove value; and 2) the need to improve performance.

To the first point, too many PR people assume they know management’s partiality for proving value.  To end the ambiguity, PRIME created The Executive Audit. Thousands of executive interviews tell us that, when given explicit choices, AVEs fare poorly (seen as “measurable” and “reasonable” but not meaningful”). PR’s contribution to sales performs no better (“meaningful” but not often “reasonable” or “easily measured”). The favourite choices?  “Delivering key messages to target audiences;” “Raising awareness; and “Meeting or beating quantifiable objectives.”

To the second point, AVEs, commonly applied as a scorecard, offer little insight for planning and continuous improvement.  And since AVEs hold no intrinsic financial value, improved PR performance is most practically measured by efficiency (doing more with less and for less); catastrophic cost avoidance; and driving profitable business outcomes.

I refer to these points whenever clients ask but thanks to the great educational outreach of AMEC and The Institute for Public Relations, we rarely hear these requests.

EM: My recommendation would be to simply say that PR has nothing to do with AVEs and if they are interested in how much an advertisement in that publication would be, we can pick up the phone and find out. In what I personally do, AVEs are simply beyond stupid to use because they are a complete lie, they provide a false picture, their use is unethical and, more than these, they prove absolutely nothing.

Does AVE have a long term future in PR measurement? If not, what will replace it?

MW: The “Death of AVEs” was announced prematurely but the alternative is easy, accessible and free. AMEC’s Integrated Evaluation Framework is one example. The most accessible, least expensive substitute centres on setting measurable objectives and begins with a foundation built upon executives preferences coupled by PR realities as to what constitutes “reasonable, meaningful and measureable.”  As you consider this substitute, keep the following in mind:

  • Good objectives are negotiated rather than dictated
  • Good objectives create a structure for prioritization
  • Good objectives reduce the potential for disputes before, during, and after the program
  • Objectives focus resources to drive performance and efficiency
  • Objectives help create successful programs by identifying areas for prescriptive change and continual improvement
  • Objectives set the stage for evaluation by making it easier for sponsors and team-members to determine if the PR program met or exceeded expectations
  • Objectives link the PR objective to the business objective

EM: I cannot speak for others but, since PR agencies do not seem to be in a hurry to become more agile and overheads conscious, I think they will continue to use AVEs as a means to justify their fees to their clients – it’s wrong, it’s shameful and unethical. Everyone likes to see a media book or, as some still prefer, clippings. This is where the line should be drawn: at the presentation of the ‘coverage’.

AVEs will only be replaced when we learn to speak business and fully understand the clients’ business strategies: it’s much more difficult to demonstrate a direct value of PR if you’re only dealing with a segment of the brief, without taking it from start to its completion, and measure its impact on the end user/company restructure/product lunch etc. This takes a lot of knowledge, time and commitment – most of the time, we only provide a lip service; and that, in itself, is far worse than AVEs.

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Rob Smith
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The editor of Influence, I'm a reporter with a background in business journalism.

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One comment on “AVEs – useful benchmark or a complete lie?
  1. Tim Cobb says:

    A very useful debate, thank you both for participating. We still find that our clients love to see themselves in the national and local press. We know that many of them will be far more influenced by media exposure than other measuring matrix. However, we never put a value on the coverage; we simply alert them to them to it.

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