Is Share of Voice a Useless PR Metric?

This is a guest post by my Edelman colleague Rob Clark

Sometimes you say a word too many times in a row and the word slowly begins to lose meaning for yourself. It becomes foreign gibberish and you begin to wonder if you’re pronouncing this thing correctly or if it was ever really a word at all. Which is all to say that I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to share of voice (SOV) and I may have passed the threshold where it ceases to hold meaning.

Why do we measure?

We measure because there is a decision we have to make and we are lacking the data needed to take action. So I would like to ask what information does share of voice provide the PR practitioner that guides an action?

In marketing – where all is a funnel down from eyeballs to wallets and the space and time is finite – SOV provides insight into whether your message is drowned by the competition’s. But the real strategic advantage comes in that the cost of the ad space is a known quantity. Knowing what your competitor’s SOV in a market is, let’s you know what kind of resources they are pushing forth. You know which of their products is getting the thrust and in what markets. It shows you some of the cards they have on the table.

But in PR we don’t buy coverage by the pound. We can’t translate ink on the page (or pixels on the screen) into dollars spent on PR. So that set of data is lost to us from a SOV measure.

Editorial – though not infinite – is open to expand and contract. Your amount of coverage can remain consistent but your share contract tremendously as a flurry of write ups about your competitor come out. Let’s say that our client is Widget co. (makers of fine hypothetical examples since 1912). Widget co has a 20% SOV and their nearest competitor has 30%. The following month Widget co is at 18% and their rival at 37%. What decision will this info drive? What action is needed?

Everyone’s natural inclination is to demand more output. More ink. They have more and we have less so spit out more. Business is geared to numbers continuously going up. You can throw as much explanation and caveats around a dip in a chart, but all the client will see is that it’s going down and down is bad. The competition is going up and up is good.

“But what if the rival’s boost occurred because their CEO drop-kicked a puppy?”

But what if the rival’s boost occurred because their CEO drop-kicked a puppy? What if their product was suddenly uncovered to be dangerous? What if their factories just burned down and there is endless discussion as to whether they will be able to survive the quarter? Would we recommend our client to seek more coverage just to match this?

Of course we wouldn’t. So that brings me back to the question, what information does share of voice provide that guides an action? What action can you take based on a SOV metric alone? And if SOV alone can’t guide a decision the way sentiment, or quality of coverage, or even volume of coverage can … then is it a metric we want to be using prominently?

The more I examine it, SOV as a metric distracts from the outcomes, is potentially misleading in and of itself, and provides little information value relative to the resources required to collect it.

What our clients are not properly asking for when they say “show me our share of voice” is “mindshare” or what they truly care about which is “share of wallet.”  They want to know what the perception of their brand is in relation to other brands. This is not data that you can collect through counting volume of clips or mentions. This is not volume of coverage but a measure of top of mind awareness. A measure of how much of a family’s resources get devoted to our client’s offerings. A research effort in and of itself.

It would seem to me that SOV as we’re currently looking at it is useful only in situations where we know a PR spend was on par with the competition (say in a sponsorship situation) or as part of an initial audit of the landscape to see how people are discussing brands relative to one another and where media bias towards one brand or another may exist.

But I would appreciate input and thoughts; the wisdom of the crowd. What say you all? Am I tampering with forces man was never meant to tamper with? Will they call me mad at the academy?

Comments or angry tweets below, or to @theelusivefish.

[About the author: Rob Clark is the Director of Insights and Measurement in the Digital practice in Edelman’s Toronto office, a wearer of funky ties and all-round smart guy. You can follow him on Twitter at @theelusivefish.]

  • Agreed that SOV isn’t the final word in social metrics, but that’s more of an issue with the company (or agency) measuring it in the first place.

    I see it as just another puzzle piece used to build a hollistic picture of the health of your company, much as in how one musnt define their pesonal health by weight, but also cholestoral, diet, body fat, amount of sleep… Etc.

    At the end of the day, SOV can provide reasonable insight when matched to a timeline context. Maybe SOV for your brand fluxuates regularly by 5% in relation to your competitor each month – doesn’t mean much. BUT if you launch a product in a brand new category and your SOV in that category doesn’t move at all? Maybe your CEO needs to drop-kick a puppy.

  • As with any purported media relations measurement approach that counts only volume and fails to factor subject matter, share of voice is a largely meaningless metric.

    • Daniel Dewey

      If SoV is measured in a vacuum (no connection to subject matter),
      then it isn’t being used correctly and is useless.  By a vacuum, I mean that excluding
      product, messaging, tone, and connecting to goals.  As an informed metric,
      however, SoV can be quite powerful.  If the CEO at Nestlé-Purina was
      caught kicking canines, the folks at Alpo would definitely see a connection
      with angry customers and lost sales.

  • From a pure PR perspective, I might agree. But the fact that social is (or should be) a truly integrated effort, SOV is very important for all the reasons you listed above. Additionally, just because it may not work for one of your clients on the PR side, it would be foolish not to measure and analyze. There are a lot of things that might not seem like it directly impacts you, but to simply ignore or not put value in it isn’t do you or your client any favors.

    To me, SOV is important and something I take the time to dig into. Not from a PR or marketing standpoint, but from a pure business standpoint. And as a brand, that’s more important than simply focusing on PR or marketing or customer service.

    • Kasey, there are lots of things we can measure.  The list of variables and metrics that we can keep tabs on is near endless.  But our resources are not endless.  We need to triage.  We need to focus on that which will have the most immediate impact.  Focus on those points of information that drive a decision, then focus on those that fill a gap in knowledge, then those that reinforce other measures.

      While I agree with Douglas that the SOV can serve as a barometer, I would argue there are other metrics that provide a more immediate delivery of information.  In his scenario, there would have been lower uptake of product volume that would indicate a problem.  However a SOV pie alone would not let you know that the competition’s volume jumped two-fold because of an earnings warning.

      But I am willing to concede that I may be wrong on this.  What decisions do your SOV measures drive Kasey?

      • Absolutely. And each situation is different and should be tailored to meet specific goals.

        For me, I especially like SOV to get a broad and generic look at whether our promotions are striking any conversations, is one of our competitors doing something that’s driving conversation, are there opportunities for my brand, etc.

        I think the big problem is people are looking at SOV separately and making decisions off one metric instead of integrating it with other pieces of information. SOV played a big role in a decision for us to discontinue a promotion we recently ran. But again, it was also one part of that overall analysis.

  • If their competitor’s factories burned down, problem solved.

    Perhaps divide it into positive and negative so that you can compare the positive shares of voice and negative shares of voice for a more accurate comparison.

  • This is a thought-provoking post. As a college student learning PR, I had not had a chance to study SOV yet.

    I can see that while it is very beneficial to understand how much your business is being talked about, SOV can hardly be used as a complete marketing analysis.

    I think that SOV should still be used as part of the overall evaluation but not as a main gauge of success.

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  • You’ll need a high share of voice AND a good reputation. BP had a huge buzz last year (http://slidesha.re/d2Zjzw) but..
    Or in other words “social reach * sentiment –> Social Conversion”. Have a look to slide 6 http://www.slideshare.net/orange8interactive/social-media-conversion

  • Great article Rob. I’m sorry I didn’t read it sooner.
    I think that you make a point in saying that share of voice by itself is somewhat meaningless, and your example is great. The competition may have more SOV than you, but maybe that talk about them is all negative.
    However, I do think that share of voice is important to a lot of companies, especially if they have other metrics to compliment it. Going back to your example, if we know what is being said about our competition and we can see that there is lots of positive sentiment around them, then perhaps our lesser share of voice should be of concern. As well, if you trend it out over time and your competition is consistently getting way more chatter about them, then that’s another reason to be concerned.
    The fact of the matter is, share of voice can play an important part in how a company measures their online activities. However, it can’t be the only thing looked at. It has be looked at in connection with other metrics, insights and over time.

    That’s my take anyways.

    Cheers,
    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

  • Great article Rob. I’m sorry I didn’t read it sooner.
    I think that you make a point in saying that share of voice by itself is somewhat meaningless, and your example is great. The competition may have more SOV than you, but maybe that talk about them is all negative.
    However, I do think that share of voice is important to a lot of companies, especially if they have other metrics to compliment it. Going back to your example, if we know what is being said about our competition and we can see that there is lots of positive sentiment around them, then perhaps our lesser share of voice should be of concern. As well, if you trend it out over time and your competition is consistently getting way more chatter about them, then that’s another reason to be concerned.
    The fact of the matter is, share of voice can play an important part in how a company measures their online activities. However, it can’t be the only thing looked at. It has be looked at in connection with other metrics, insights and over time.

    That’s my take anyways.

    Cheers,
    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

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  • Thought I’d weigh-in with my take on this, now that others have had a chance to do the same. I invited Rob to post this here after we had a fairly… energetic discussion about this one day where I challenged some of these thoughts. 

    I see a few key points here:

    1. I suspect that a lot of people who do focus on SOV (and/or reach) in social media come from backgrounds where they’re used to *buying* reach rather than *earning* it. In the latter case, there are many additional factors to consider – tone and quality of that reach being key.

    2. With the assumption that measurement should always drive to actions then, taken in isolation, share of voice accomplishes little. Your SOV went down – what action does that drive? Work harder? Invest more? That’s hardly useful (and if you’re able to say you could be working harder then that’s a whole different discussion). You need other analysis to derive any useful insights – specific results from activities, for example, which are really independent from the SOV number.

    3. With that said, when taken in context with other numbers you can derive useful insights. Ultimately, SOV in this context is the volume of discussion about “your topics” compared to that about those of your competitor(s). Pair that with sentiment analysis and you’ve got an issues management tool; pair it with topic analysis and you’ve got a market intelligence tool… and so on. So, the volume analysis is more of a foundation for other measurements than a stand-alone pillar.

    Ultimately, if you give me a single sheet of paper with just SOV on it, I get no value. Give me one that shows negative sentiment trends in comparison to the market and we’ve got something to work with.

    Make sense?

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  • Carol Wolicki

    Rob — If you’re looking at SOV as only Quantity of clips across competitors, then your points well taken.  However, if sliced topically (product or issue mind share) then there’s still some validity in the process. Sentiment analysis has the same drawback as SOV otherwise. Best to compare apples to apples…

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