Gini Dietrich

Die, AVEs, Die!

By: Gini Dietrich | February 16, 2016 | 

RIP AVEsBy Gini Dietrich

Alright, boys and girls. We need to have a talk.

AVEs, or advertising equivalencies, are not metrics we should be using to validate our work.

In fact, doing so is irresponsible. It’s irresponsible to our clients (internal or external), it’s irresponsible to our industry, and it’s irresponsible to your career.

Before we had the Internet and access to immediate data, AVEs were one of the only ways we could show validity in our work. But even then they were flawed.

For instance, let’s say your company or product or service is mentioned in an article. It’s just one sentence in the entire piece. What’s the advertising equivalent of that?

You can’t even say it’s equivalent to an eighth or quarter page ad.

Not to mention, earned media tends to be more credible than advertising, so how do you measure that? Is it a multiple of five? 10? 25?

It’s not a great way to show effectiveness of a PR program.

And yet…

What is the Real Value of PR?

Meltwater recently released a white paper titled, “Estimating the Real Value of Public Relations.”

The white paper is behind a landing page, but I’ll save you the trouble of having to download it.

Meltwater invited Forbes contributor and PR veteran Robert Wynne to weigh in. Explore various approaches for estimating the value of public relations and find out why he thinks AVEs are the simplest (and best) one.

Head. Explode.

But that’s not even the best part. That’s to just get you to download the eBook.

The best part is that Wynne uses “research” that was conducted between 1998 and 2005 (yes, before social media or Big Data made their entries into communications) that showed editorial served a better purpose than advertising.

Not a big surprise. We knew that.

But we also know, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, that although trust in media is up slightly from last year, it’s still not even at a passing grade (less than 60 percent).

To top it off, Meltwater defends their eBook by saying, “Reporting needs to differ, therefore we avoid constraining customers to only one measurement or insight.”

Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 6.09.26 AM

Not only are AVEs irresponsible, but the vendors who support the industry and support this flawed “metric” are irresponsible.

AVEs Are Not Real Metrics

In this eBook, Wynne goes on to make his argument for AVEs:

Everyone knows what advertising is worth because TV networks, websites, magazines, and others put a price on it. And businesses pay for it.

What else are we going to compare it to? The market says ads are worth X for Y space in Z publication. The market has already set the price and the commodity to be compared to.

He then shows a case study from one of his clients:

For our client Menlo College, we placed a half-page story on the front section of the San Francisco Chronicle. A half-page ad costs about $20,000. The PR Value equals at least $100,000, not including placement on the website.

So what he’s saying is a half-page ad in that paper is $20,000. But, because editorial is so much more credible, he can use a multiplier of five to get the AVE (which, by-the-way, isn’t always the multiplier; he says it can be anywhere from five to 100 times).

The PR Value then becomes $100,000 AND SO WHAT?!?

  • Did it bring people to the website?
  • What did those people do when they visited?
  • Did they view the home page and leave?
  • Did they spend time digging through the site?
  • Did they download any content, subscribe to the blog, or register for a webinar?
  • Did they go into an email automation workflow?
  • Did they have the opportunity to buy?
  • Did they buy or did they abandon their cart?

I’m all for saying, “We got this half-page article on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle.”

That’s awesome!

Where I have the problem is using AVEs to measure effectiveness.

It’s not really worth $100,000 UNLESS the people who visited the website directly from the article bought $100,000 in products or services.

Then its really worth $100,000.

A Condemnation

Right after the eBook was released, PRCA and ICCO issued a joint statement condemning it.

We are astonished that any credible measurement and evaluation professional would make the case for AVEs. AVEs measure absolutely nothing other than the vanity of those reporting them. I had hoped that the evaluation community had condemned them to the rubbish bin of history years ago.

To say that clients are used to them is to miss the point utterly. Some clients are indeed, but more enlightened ones know how meaningless they are, and have embraced the proper analysis of outcomes instead. Yes, there is further work to be done here, but accepting a broken system simply because some people are used to it is surrender of the worst kind.

The author makes much of the “Manhattan Beach Principles.” Frankly, I’ve never heard of them, and I doubt that anybody in the industry has. The principles that I believe in are the AMEC Barcelona ones, refreshed only last year, and endorsed by the PRCA, ICCO and the 33 associations ICCO represents.

I trust that Meltwater will repudiate this bogus paper with immediate effect.

To their point, there are still some clients out there who ask for AVEs.

I say give them to them…and also show them the data that supports how many qualified leads you are bringing to the sales department to nurture and close.

Show them how much your qualified leads equal in generated revenue.

I promise they’ll no longer care about AVEs or impressions or anything else.

They’ll only care about the kind of work you’re doing that is making the organization money.

If you need help with other PR metrics, check out what to measure in the PESO model. You’ll see AVEs are not mentioned anywhere.

Let’s Not Squander Our Opportunity

We have a gigantic opportunity to not only show we are an investment, but to prove it.

We have a gigantic opportunity to lead strategic planning.

We have a gigantic opportunity to work hand-in-hand with our marketing discipline brothers and sisters.

We have a gigantic opportunity to finally sit at the table with the big kids and show how PESO, when integrated well and efficiently, drives more revenue than anything else (including cold calls and golf outings).

Yes, it’s a lot more difficult to track and measure all of that, but only because it’s data collection and it takes time (and it’s a little bit of math, which I know you all hate).

It’s certainly harder than saying, “A half-page ad in the paper is $20,000 and I think we should use a multiplier of 45 this time, so the PR Value is $900,000.”

But, once you get your system set up, it can become automated and provide you dashboards that not only help you prove that your half-page article in the paper actually generated $900,000, but give you the data you need to make decisions about your communications campaign, in real-time.

Please, for once and for all, let’s let AVEs die.

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • I can’t imagine creating content that gets rebuked by industry leading companies. Wow! I remember in the early 2000s attending a presentation by a tourism bureau and them mentioning AVEs. As someone not familiar with them at the time, I thought, how did they get that number? And just like you pointed out, I wondered what good it did for the destination. How many room nights? Visitors? Technology allows us to provide so much valuable data to our clients. I can’t imagine not using it in this day an age.

    • I’m pretty angry. I was upset about it a couple of weeks ago when I saw the tweets from them defending AVEs, but my head exploded when I downloaded the white paper. What’s even more, the author quotes veteran communicators as saying AVEs are not the way to go and then refutes them with this “research” that is more than 10 years old.

  • Jodi Echakowitz

    While it’s bad enough that a “PR veteran” produced the white paper, the fact that it was published by a vendor that serves the PR industry is just astonishing.

    • Martin and I talked about it on Inside PR and I didn’t mention who it was. But when I saw the white paper, it was too hard to write about it and not say. We have to do better than this. The vendors, the professionals, the journalists…all of us.

      • Jodi Echakowitz

        I couldn’t agree more!

  • Travis Peterson

    I saw that piece. Even downloaded it. And then it was all AVEs-which of course is interesting because Meltwater (we use them) doesn’t even track print coverage very easily, only digital, which is where the “big” AVEs are.

    May they forever have newspaper ink on their hands and their computers run slow.

    • How did your head not explode?! It must have been one of those things that you read and think, “Huh, that’s odd.” And then go about your life.

  • Our dear friend Shonali had a nice Facebook rant that touched on this the other day…

    I think the fact that AVEs keep coming up is just indicative of the fact that communicators are so pressed to show hard ROI in every endeavor, yet impact in some channels will always be more easily measured than others. We see the same problem with content marketing, and hence we hear Joe and Robert of CMI having to constantly repeat themselves that you can’t expect short term sales boosts from long-term brand building strategies. It’s just the nature of the game.

    Did you get good coverage in a target publication that you know your target audience is reading? Great! It certainly isn’t hurting your cause, that’s for sure. But you said it right: if you want to measure impact on sales, measure impact on sales. Don’t try to determine some tangential benefits based on arbitrary multipliers and ad values that someone else determined with no relation to your business. One hopes we’re smarter than that as an industry… but right when you think that, you see a piece of content like Meltwater’s.

    • She and I talked about it when they had the Twitter debate about defending AVEs because their customers ask for them. We are really doing ourselves a HUGE disservice by using those “metrics.” To your point, it’s all arbitrary.

  • Alberto Canal

    Well said. Measurement should start with business goals and as communicators we need to work back from there.

  • Mark Schaefer

    Respectfullly, I would like to provide a contrarian point of view. Your comment:

    “It’s not really worth $100,000 UNLESS the people who visited the website directly from the article bought $100,000 in products or services.”

    … is untrue. Brands spend millions of dollars on ads EVERY DAY with no absolute knowledge of a connection to sales, web visits or leads. You’re saying that Anheuser-Busch knows the ROI of the Clydesdales. They don’t (as a recent Ad Age article attests).

    PR is as much as art as science. Why not accept that?

    I do not know the guy who wrote the article. I am not embroiled in the constant naval-gazing that the PR industry has become and never will be. However, I am a business person. And one of the things the PR industry needs to recognize is that most businesses don’t care about some dreamy new metric. To be effective, PR has to report in the langauge of business. And the langueage of business is (for better or worse) impressions, sales and ROI.

    No matter how imperfect (as all measures are in the digital realm) this AVE estimate (if at least based on current data) may have merit because among many imperfect estimates, it is an imperfect estimate business people can understand. They know they can’t put a dollar value on impressions (Clydesdales and otherwise) and can live with that.

    I do think we are on the brink of a breakthough in this field with smart tracking codes and other innovations but until then, I hope the PR file at some point can rise about this internally-focused funk and have discussions about what BUSINESSES want, not what the measurati and PRSA want.

    I’m not defending the author or the article. I’m only pointing out reasons that a measure of this kind might be embraced by businesses seeking a proxy in their comfort zone, even though it is not embraced by PR professionals seeking some perfect truth.

    • Boy, I just don’t agree, Mark. I think we’re doing the industry a HUGE disservice by saying this measures against ROI. It doesn’t. Just like the blog post I wrote last week about the Super Bowl ads. Why is it okay that we say half of your advertising dollar works, we just don’t know which half?

      That’s bogus in today’s data-driven world. We have SO MUCH information at our fingertips, yet we don’t understand the complexities of the business we work for or the client’s we work with to show real ROI.

      I guarantee you the client we made $775,000 for on our $110,00 budget last year cares way more about that ROI than some dumb half-page story in the paper that equated $100,000 in PR Value.

      That’s totally bunk and, as as a business advisor, I expect you’d agree. The Clydesdales don’t sell beer. We have to do a better job of advancing all of the marketing disciplines to things that matter.

      • Mark Schaefer

        The issue is, we can’t expect a direct line between a press release or a mention and a sale. It just doesn’t happen that way. The buyer’s journey is so convoluted. The case you mention here is very, very rare if you were to pin the sales down to one source.

        Sure, we have lots of data, but WHICH stream caused the sale? On average, there is nine months between the time a person goes to an auto site and the time they buy a car. What caused the ultimate sale? An ad? Influence from a friend or relative? Something they saw on Facebook? A mention in a news article? We are moving to a day when this might become more precise but until then we will have to approximate.

        Don’t have time today for further debate unfortunately. Wish we would have had this discussion on or Blab : ) Thanks for obliging me the space for a counter discussion — again, NOT defending the methodology, just point out that the buyer’s journey is not linear.

        • I agree with you that the buyers journey is not linear and there are lots of ways someone might make a decision to buy. My point in this whole thing is we are tracking the wrong things (AVEs, social media followers, YouTube viewers, impressions) and we have to move to the right things.

          Think about it this way: If I have a client who has a restaurant opening, my job is to get people to the restaurant. If they don’t open the doors, that isn’t a PR problem. It’s an operation problem. But I can still point to getting 200 people to the door as my metric.

          That’s MUCH better than some arbitrary number based on how much an ad would cost with some random multiplier.

          • David Fail

            Mark and Gini, thanks for the back-and-forth. Mark’s comments remind me that the biggest problem with AVEs is the lack of clarity about AV. Developing an equivalent to a vague measurement compounds the vagueness — and continues to subordinate PR (or maybe we should start calling it PESOR) to advertising.

          • PESOR! LOL!

  • The first warning sign should have been the fact it’s from Meltwater, who lack authority in many marketing circles for the very reasons you mention in your critique.

    The second is using a thought leader who thinks it’s fine to make up numbers to supposedly add weight as to why a publication front page equals any amount of ROI based on the name of the publication, versus what you (rightly) say is negative ROI until proven otherwise.

    Thanks for continuing to show PR and marketing should be working hand-in-hand for business goals, results and metrics.

    • My head is seriously going to explode. My tombstone will say, “RIP Gini. We’re sorry AVEs killed you.”

      • I’m already working on a eulogy with a lot of words that rhyme with AVE, it’s quite poetic.

        • Please be sure to write it in Cockney slang.

          “‘Ave you seen Gini?”
          “I ‘ave, and she ain’t ‘alf gone.”
          “She always did say she’d ‘ave none of it when it came to AVE, gorbless ‘er soul.”

          • I’m going to put in my will that you are to do this.

          • You’re assuming I’m going to be alive longer than you to do so. Which is nice – thank you! 🙂

            On the off chance I’m not, I’ll train Ewan in the Ways of the Cockney so he can be your eulogist.

  • JeninSTL

    I agree with Mark. I realize that AVE’s are extremely problematic and not at all a perfect measurement tool but I use them in my reports because they’re requested by the data-minded business minded individuals I work with. They want to know ROI and they want hard numbers they can compare year after year. How does 2014 compare to 2015? They want numbers even if we insist that the numbers aren’t accurate.

    The other problem is that every year I will spend about a month digging through white papers, blogs and slideshare presentations trying to find out what a better report would look like. I have the reports I’m less than happy with on my own desktop – but what’s the new method of reporting look like? How can I get inspired by a better results report . . . and I can’t ever find an example. I’ve worked in in-house PR at a number of companies and we’ve worked with large agencies, small agencies and individual consultants – no one has presented a better report. There’s a lot of conversation about how AVEs are not great – but there’s no alternative that’s being presented as a good model to follow.

    In a perfect world it should be unique to each campaign but it’s not a perfect world. Upper management at every company I’ve worked for has wanted hard data that can be compared from year-to-year.

    • You can present hard data and year on year growth, results, etc., without defaulting (or making a good chunk of the data) to AVEs. They’ve been pretty much ridiculed by not just marketers, but PR leaders (actual leaders) for a while.

      Katie Paine is one of the most respected people in the PR measurement space, and she talked about this back in 2014:

    • I also wrote a blog post (linked as PR Metrics above) that provides TONS of metrics for you to use. I do think, if the client asks for AVEs, you should provide them. You can’t get around that. But you should spend some time providing the other things. I guarantee they’ll ask you to stop including AVEs when they see how much money you’re making them.

      We have a client that we have a big revenue number attached to our communications campaign this year. Here is what we track weekly: Community (blog and website visitors and social media followers); subscribers (anyone who has given us an email address through newsletter or blog subscription, free downloads, and a starter kit we provide); members (any attendees at speaking gigs or workshops, taken free trial all the way through); and active users (anyone who has purchased something). Against those things, we track conversions and revenue generated.

      On the back-end, we also track (but don’t report weekly to the client–just monthly), how many of the community and subscribers are coming from earned media efforts and what percentage they are of the total conversions. It’s significant—in the 60 percentile.

      THAT is how you track effectiveness.

  • Sean Fleming

    I never liked AVEs when I was a PR practitioner. I’ve never met anyone agency-side who did. In fact, does anyone really think PR practitioners like AVEs?

    Clients like them because for all their faults (and there are many) AVEs give you a simple number that you can track month after month after month.

    I had one of the UK’s major banks as a client just a few years ago, and they insisted on AVEs for their monthly reporting. We didn’t technically offer AVEs, but we had to for them. Why did this happen…? “We’re bankers,” they said, “we get on well with numbers, and the management here don’t care about share of voice and other stuff. They just want a number.”

    In recent weeks I’ve heard from others in the UK sector who have exactly the same tale to tell about big name clients demanding AVEs.

    It’s a bit like that FitBit some of you are wearing. It’s not actually counting every step you take, nor are the distances it measures reliably accurate. But you like the simple number you get and you use it to track your implied progress over time.

    If clients had confidence in an alternative metric they’d demand that, and the PR industry would give it to them … there’s a saying about the person who pays the piper calling the tune, isn’t there. You can argue that PR agencies should refuse to deal in AVEs. Very laudable. But not many will risk upsetting clients or putting relationships in jeopardy. In the case of the client I mentioned above, it was a six-figure some of money from one of the biggest business names in the country. You don’t walk away from that because of shonky metric choices.

    Oh, wait … what about the Barcelona Principles, some of you may ask. The Barcelona Principles aren’t the answer. They aren’t any kind of answer. They’re a preamble to a question. A good question. A relevant question. But they ain’t no answer.

    • I agree with you, Sean, that if your clients are asking for them, you should provide them. AND you should provide the stuff that really matters. I promise it’s not a fight or taking a risk in losing the client. When they see the REAL numbers attached to the work we do, they won’t care at all about AVEs.

      The last time we used AVEs was in 2008 and I remember the conversation with the client who finally said we no longer needed to report them. He said, “Do you think we still need to show these numbers when we have all this other data?”

      NO. I DO NOT.

      There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to PR metrics, but we have to do a better job of showing real results against the work we do. And AVEs ain’t it.

  • That’s what you get for reading white papers. Bleh! I think whoever invented the term “white paper” probably did it to ensure that nobody would bother reading and verifying his work.

    • LOL! I wasn’t going to read it, but then I saw the response from ICCO and my curiosity got the best of me. I even gave them my email address to get it!

    • HA! Well, I hear they can be handy for getting speaking gigs and being viewed as “thought leaders”… 🙂

      • See now, both of your posts deserve a polite “like” (probably a superficial metric, right?), but under the new system I have to write a reply.

        “Thought leadership” is right up there with white papers. Bleh!

        • Thought leader rhymes with pot breeder. True story.

  • Kate Eidam

    To all the folks holding onto AVEs:

    1. AVEs are not the language of business.
    Perhaps they are a prehistoric metric that non-PR execs understand because they’ve been used so prevalently. HOWEVER, just because it’s been done the same way for decades is not a good enough justification for their continued use.

    How marketing is measured has evolved and matured, as should PR, if we want to continue to have a seat at the table. (Many non-marketing execs don’t think highly of “impressions” either … they’re demanding marketing efforts be measured with business outcomes in mind. AVEs = same boat)

    2. If data-minded execs truly knew and understood what an AVE is, they (most likely) wouldn’t ask for them…unless they’re trying to check a box.

    It’s hard when we’re under the pressure of daily deadlines and drowning in meetings to take a step back and look critically at how we’ve been doing things and how what we’re doing actually impacts the business. But it’s also our responsibility as stewards of our employers’ and clients’ dollars, their business interests and their customers to not be satisfied with the status quo.

    I hear a AVE dirge playing in my head.

    • “But it’s also our responsibility as stewards of our employers’ and clients’ dollars, their business interests and their customers to not be satisfied with the status quo.”


    • Amen.

  • I went to see a client last week with a deck that showed exactly how our content marketing program delivered 120 sales of luxury, high-ticket items in six months. The client signed for another six months and is introducing us to key partners.

    Hard data rules!

  • Aly

    This reminds me of the time the agency I was working for, circa 2005, showed a client a report that totaled over $2M in AVEs. $2M! That was more than a 10X return on their PR investment. The client thanked us for the beautiful clip book, which took our intern approximately two months and two credit hours to product. Then they fired us.

    Why? Because their revenue was weak, their stock price was plummeting, and they couldn’t tie any business success back to PR.

    “I’m out.” — said Aly Saxe

    • That almost exact scenario happened to me, circa 2000.

  • howiegoldfarb

    I fully agree 100%

    Most ad $ is wasted anyway so why do you want to compare to wasted ad $?

    Now for the discussion we have been having on PESO. I don’t view earned media as something you pay someone to generate. To me that is paid media though of a different sort. Earned is when you generate stories organically because your product or service is so good you get coverage.

    And that actually is the angle you are talking about. Why should I spend on a PR effort as a marketing channel vs spending on other channels. It all comes down to me paying money and getting something back…and the CFO will measure all spend by a business for ROI not just marketing/pr. The areas with the highest ROI always win bigger budgets.

    But yes lets kill the AVE.

  • This morning I had egg on a biscuit from Tim Hortons. The AVE proponents would be reporting that I had four breakfasts this morning because the egg value equivalency for Eggs Benedict at the Waldorf-Astoria would be $17.

    Is it easier to tally up what equivalent ad space would have cost and multiply by five, as opposed to identify what your criteria for success are and track how much your efforts lent towards achieving that criteria? Hell yes. But you know what’s easier still? Take your PR budget and multiply it by ten. That’s your PR Guestimated Value. If you’re not going to expend the effort tracking reality, don’t waste your hours manufacturing a fictional number. Just multiply by ten and be done with it.

    That greasy slimy feeling you have by just manufacturing a number from wholecloth and calling it success? That’s what you ought to be feeling when you put forward an AVE.

    Your client is demanding AVEs? Then your client is asking you to give them a convenient fiction. If your client asked you to outright lie to the general public, would you? Of course not. What if they offered to pay you double? OF COURSE NOT. It’s unethical. It’s wrong. So if we’re not going to lie to the public just because we’re told to, why in gods name would we think it’s okay to lie to our clients just because we’re told to.

    It’s hard work measuring the success of PR but it is NOT impossible. KNOW what the change is you’re trying to create in the market. Identify what indicators or patterns of behaviour would show that change is happening. Track and map back against your efforts.

    • I love you. Will you marry me?

      • Hokey smokey – with this I’ve met my annual quota for marriage value equivalency! Everyone, please blink rapidly five dozen times so I can reach my targets for impressions and then I can go home for the day. ;P

        • Kate Eidam

          Damn. I was going to make the same proposal as GIni. Though I know plural marriage is frowned upon. Love the egg analogy.

          • I don’t know…I grew up Mormon. I think we can make it work.

          • Kate Eidam

            things. just. got. interesting.

          • In fairness, Kate, Gini proposes to at least 27 people very day….

          • Not really to 27 PEOPLE. More like to 27 things. You know, my bike, my iPad, my earbuds…

  • Great article, Gini. I believe part of the issue is that AVEs are easy, and they often satiate a Boardroom, so PR executives continue the practice. Until brands recognize that AVEs are not a realistic measurement of success, agencies and vendors will continue to offer them. Meltwater’s response is that “Many PR people want to do this so we let them.” That’s a short sighted strategy for immediate revenue and not a long term strategy for innovating and improving our industry as a whole.

    Meltwater is not the only vendor to measure and promote AVEs. When we’re asked, we are very straight forward that we are building a company focused on not only selling software, but improving the PR industry, and so no, we do not measure AVEs, nor will we ever. The last big brand prospect that asked us about this responded that their executives wanted them. I’m happy to say that we explained why we don’t measure them, and they ended up choosing us over the competitor who does. This may make our sales cycle a bit longer now, but in the long run we believe that we are doing our part to educate and advocate for change.

    Katie Paine may have summed it up best when she said, in response to Meltwater, “If your customers demanded hookers or heroin, would you also provide those?” Katie is one to tell it like it is!

    Keep up the great work educating our industry.