The Measurement Standard is pleased to welcome Mark Story. Mark Story brings more than 20 years of experience in communications and storytelling. The media that he has used over the years has changed significantly and he has changed along with it and mastered each media, developing award-winning campaigns for clients, issues, and candidates. As subsets of strategic communication, Mark has extensive experience in public affairs and reputation management, marketing communications, crisis communications, litigation communications, digital communications, public relations, video production, speech writing, editing and more.
Mark has worked internationally in Asia as Director of International Corporate Affairs at Alibaba Group, in the securities and financial sector, and also in healthcare and bio/pharma. He has more than 15 years of experience in the public relations and public affairs agency world, specializing in reputation management.
Mark is also an adjunct professor at John’s Hopkins University and is the author of a critically acclaimed career guide, “Starting Your Career as a Social Media Manager.”
—The Measurement Standard: Welcome to our Measurement Life interview. First, let’s learn a little about you: How did you become interested in measurement and evaluation?
I probably became interested in measurement when the World Wide Web consisted of ARPANET. I did my Master’s Degree in Marketing Management in the early 1990s, and even back then, good marketing campaigns had a strong measurement element. It’s like the old Russian saying, “Trust, but verify.” I learned that even with hunches and educated guesses, one still had to say “Did this campaign succeed? And if so, why or why not?”
—TMS: In your experience as an educator, what path have you seen aspiring communicators and PR professionals take? What would you recommend for today’s students?
I live in the Washington, DC Metro area and can tell you that the path that I see here is people are going to graduate school and getting a Master’s degree in some form of communications: digital, public relations or marketing. The competition in post-graduate degrees here is fierce and institutions of higher learning are spending tons of marketing dollars. When I looked up the statistics, though, D.C. is apparently an outlier; graduate school degrees have remained flat or declined from 2010 to 2017.
In terms of what I would recommend for non-educational career development, there are a couple of different paths.
If one aspires to do corporate communications, I still recommend the “mail room to board room” approach. Start out at a low level with an open mind and a sound work ethic and spend your time learning from others and learning on the job. Advancement within many companies can be slower, so when one gains experience, don’t discount moving to another city. Many younger people are mobile and not tied down by mortgages, family or other considerations that keep older people locked into a geographic region. So, if you are working hard in Atlanta and your boss isn’t going anywhere soon, if you want to make that next big career leap, think about New York, Boston or other cities that might afford you a more senior position that enables you to advance your career.
Second, and this is not for everyone, but there is the “agency option.” Many young people start out working for public relations, marketing, advertising or public affairs agencies. The good news is that it is a magnificent training ground for so many things: writing, presenting, pitching, and learning about multimedia (online and offline) campaigns. That’s the good news.
The other news about agencies is that many take younger people on the “bring ‘em in and burn ‘em out” path. Expect to work lots of very long hours with little training and bow to the almighty client (the day that my son was born, I was editing a proposal that night). Usually, after a few years, people either make a switch to a job with less pressure and fewer hours, or become “agency lifers.”
—TMS: What’s so special about measurement and evaluation? Why does it have a place in your life as a communicator?
Twelve years of the last 25 I have worked have been within agencies, and that is a terrific training ground because a) you have to constantly prove to clients the worth of the money that they are paying you (measurement is huge), and b) when you are pitching new clients, measurement is a great way to say, “This is what we did for client XYZ – it’s amazing how much their business has grown, and it’s directly correlated to our work.” Virtually all successful larger agencies have entire divisions related to all kinds of measurement: everything from very sophisticated polling to social media measurement.
Measurement is only as accurate and helpful as the story that it tells for people who are not measurement experts.
—TMS: You have lots of experience using measurement and evaluation to further business goals in a variety of roles and industries. How does this experience help your judgment and ability to make measurement more accurate?
Measurement is only as accurate and helpful as the story that it tells for people who are not measurement experts. Using digital measurement as an example, I still spend quite a bit of time with internal clients a) getting them to buy into the concept of measurement and analytics, b) MAKING them define success (yes, you have to force them sometimes – you would be surprised by how many senior level people cannot define what success is), and then working with them to ensure that the numbers that you present to them before, during and after a campaign tell a story.
The last part is the most important. At almost every job that I have had, the digital analytics folks would crank out a Google Analytics report and consider their work done. Wrong. To truly be a good communicator, one has to work with the analytics staff to have them develop reports that tell a story. Most people can’t discern a story based upon a bunch of numbers, so it’s up to good communicators to be good interpreters: help the analytics folks present numbers that tell a story and work with your internal stakeholders to make sure that they understand that story.
—TMS: In particular, you have a lot of experience with social media measurement. What advice do you have for companies who may be struggling to adopt this type of analysis?
“Don’t be an idiot” is the first piece of advice. Invest in measurement. It’s SO easy to get basic social media measurement, so organizations need to devote the fiscal and human capital to make sure that social is being measured properly. It’s not hard to do, but social media measurement can help guide important decisions: if organic traffic matters, how much growth is good growth? How many engagements are good engagements? Far too many times, I see organizations become entranced by KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and state “Success is increasing social media visitors by 10% next year.” Really? Random goals are meaningless.
If organizations are struggling, one can also KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. How many people are in a target demographic online? How many of these people is it reasonable to reach? When you reach them, what action do you want them to take? And how will you measure success once these people take the action we want them to take? And how is the whole process replicable?
—TMS: When a client asks you to do measurement or evaluation in a way that you know to be misguided, how do you handle it?
This is a tough situation. It is 2017, and I still hear both internal and external clients talk about “hits,” which many think is “How Idiots Track Success,” myself included.
I suppose that my approach goes way back to when I started my career in sales: determining and overcoming objections. If a client has a misguided approach, I generally try and use one of their own business goals as an end result (you can’t argue with that), and then offer an alternative and hopefully better way to measure something that is more likely to meet that business goal.
This is a simple example, but let’s say that a client wants solely to measure Twitter impressions. I would tell my client that impressions on Twitter are just like an impression in a newspaper: being above the fold on page A1 counts the same as being on page D47 that no one will ever see. If their intended outcome is to get people to do something, a better way to measure that is how people engaged with the post. Did they click on a link, Like, re-tweet or share a post? These actions constitute interest and endorsement and are a much better predictor of some form of increased interest.
I think the second approach is to be okay with clients taking a misguided approach. That’s one good way to stay sane, then over time, attempt to show your stakeholder the value of looking at a different set of metrics. And I am stealing this one from the incredibly smart Shel Holtz, but the question that frequently comes from the C-Suite is “What’s the ROI of social media?” My answer to that is a question: “Well, you take clients out on the town/out on a golf course/on a retreat. How do you measure the value of this relationship building?” The next sound? Crickets.
Not everything can be quantified, and the “social” in social media is about developing relationships. You can’t measure the relationships that are built during 18 holes of golf, and people are ok with that. Then let’s be ok with knowing that we are building an online community and cannot measure all aspects of that.
—TMS: Suppose you have to address a tough audience about a tricky project. What presentation techniques will you bring to the meeting?
It depends upon what “tricky” is. If it’s a doubtful audience, then I have to lead with either good things that have been accomplished/benefits accrued or if I am proposing something, I like to start with looking one year ahead to what the future will look like if we are successful. “Imagine in a year that we can…” is a good way to start that conversation.
If “tricky” means presenting hard-to-understand data, then I again keep it simple: simplicity and storytelling are critical. People relate to stories much more than they relate to numbers.
If the audience is tough because I sense opposition, I will try very hard to read the body language of the people in the room, especially those whom I think are key decision makers. When I hit on something that seems to resonate, I will hammer away on different derivations of that point. If that same important person hops on his/her mobile device and tunes out, I will change topics as soon as I can and try and reengage that person or those people. Reading a room is critical.
Finally, if I am proposing something to an audience that I think will be doubtful or suspect, I try and very quietly speak with these folks in advance of the meeting to explain what I am attempting to do in a way that resonates for them, makes sense to them and from which they would accrue some benefit. That way, when they come in to the room, these people are less likely to outright oppose something that I am presenting. It’s sort of like vote counting on Capitol Hill: find out who the key swing votes are and offer up something that benefits them before the vote takes place.
—TMS: What are your favorite measurement tools or projects?
My most recent job was at the National Cancer Institute and I learned over time that Twitter is still the place that many disease-specific (especially cancer) communities meet using hashtags. So, by using #BCSM (breast cancer social media), I am putting myself into a larger, established and robust conversation. A tool developed by a company called “Symplur” is the “Healthcare Hashtag Project.” They have categorized billions of tweets, standardized a common set of hashtags for disease groups, and have a terrific back end on which one can immediately measure the impact of outbound communications. It also enables one to identify Twitter influencers based upon many different categories.
I wrote a post on Symplur’s blog last year in which I talked about how Twitter was important to the cancer community. The post explains some of how cancer-specific communities took shape on Twitter and grew into brick-and-mortar organizations.
As for tools, I am a huge fan of social media listening as an early-warning system. When I worked for Alibaba Group in Hong Kong, I used Radian 6. What I liked about it was that I got alerts instantly. My job was reputation management and crisis communications, and we were able to avert so many crises by spotting problems on social before they got bigger.
I think that measurement and evaluation are gaining in popularity and influence, but there is still a LONG way to go to bridge the gap between the people who churn out the numbers, and those who make the resource allocation decisions based upon measurement.
—TMS: Tell us a story of when you used measurement or evaluation to significantly improve a client’s or company’s program.
Again, when I was working for Alibaba in 2012, video was just starting to overtake other text-based social media as a good tool to reach key audiences. And pranks and humor were (and probably still are) popular on YouTube. At the same time, people were suspicious of a Chinese behemoth and we were attempting to make inroads into the U.S. market. So, we tried using humor in videos, especially what we called “FailFix” videos. Google/YouTube Creator Studio offers such good analytics that we constantly fine-tuned how far to go with what we thought was humorous, where those people lived in the U.S., and how we could get them to visit and Alibaba online property.
—TMS: Where are measurement and evaluation going? What great strides do you see in your crystal ball?
I think that measurement and evaluation are gaining in popularity and influence, but there is still a LONG way to go to bridge the gap between the people who churn out the numbers, and those who make the resource allocation decisions based upon measurement. In my crystal ball (and hopefully in the future), there will be either a specific role or title for a person whose job it is to, as I have often said “Make the numbers tell a story.” Numbers without good explanation are just numbers. Measurement that tells a story that informs good decisions is gold.
—TMS: If you could invent one magical measurement or evaluation tool to accomplish anything, what would it be?
This one is easy: I would invent a tool that helps me measure my teenage daughter’s moods before I open up my mouth and ask her how her day was.
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