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The Price of Everything, the Value of Nothing: getting out from under the ROI rock

BY mikeklein

One of the most frustrating things about the pandemic is that a ridiculous number of top-shelf comms people are sidelined, either from having lost jobs or finding their projects descoped or cancelled.

While most believe this is "a natural function of the recession," it also reinforces what's bothered me for years: communication professionals and the profession as a whole have done a lousy job of demonstrating the strategic and financial value we add to our organizations and society.

Simply put, we measure the wrong stuff. Most popular measurements are linear, like ROI (return on investment), but most comms work focuses on outcomes, which are binary.

As in:

Whether we achieved the objective or hit the target.
Whether we closed the sale.
Whether we integrated the acquisition successfully or opened the new train line on schedule.

We help businesses win a lot of all-or-nothing bets. But since there's rarely a linear way to measure them, our contribution gets discounted. We get pressurized to focus on outputs instead of outcomes solely because outputs are more easily measured in a linear way, like clicks and open rates, even though they offer little demonstrable value.

We're not alone in this. Other disciplines face similar pressures, like my previous game of political campaign management. US political pollster Mark Mellman (whom I worked with 30 years ago) reviewed a study claiming that the ROI of individual communication pieces was basically zero and concluded that campaign expenditures were essentially worthless. Mellman countered that all of these pieces have a cumulative effect, and after all, an election is a binary outcome.

ROI has its use; online analytics have their uses. But what we do as communication professionals ultimately involves having cumulative impact on a lot of binary outcomes. Our future as professionals may well depend on us getting far better at documenting the dollar value and impact of those outcomes so that we are seen as essential as the recovery unfolds.

Developing and honing business strategy is a pivotal aspect of a communicator’s role. Its essential elements include leading clients through message development, analyzing intended impact on desired outcomes and competitive dynamics, and ultimately developing a coherent strategy for the initiative in question. All of these are binary - did it or didn’t do it - activities, and they generally build up to binary outcomes. Trying to elicit the value of three hours spent doing the middle third of an analysis makes no sense.

Communicators are skilled thought leaders. When we identify areas requiring change or improvement, we begin planting seeds of change with key influencers - some of whom may be outside the intended target audience but whose support may have even more impact on the outcome.

This is not to say ROI is worthless. Where there is a genuine proportional relationship between investment and impact, ROI can be a simple, satisfying answer, and can buy time (and budget) for a team, function or project to continue on.

But more often than not, it tends to chronically understate our impact and systemically undersells our value. In today’s cutthroat cash-conservation climate, we need to find a better way to make a case for ourselves, and we need to do it soon.

MIKE KLEIN is Principal of Changing The Terms, a business communication consultancy focusing on internal and change communication and is senior advisor on Smarp's Strategic Services team. Author of "From Lincoln to LinkedIn," Mike is an MBA graduate of London Business School and has worked with companies including easyJet, Barclays, Avery Dennison, Shell, and Cargill. Mike writes this from Reykjavik, Iceland - and acknowledges the editorial help of Michael Deas and Susan Martin with this piece.

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