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.]

Dave Fleet
EVP Digital at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.