The three largest press release distribution services released approximately 1,759 press releases a day in 2013. With each of those releases, the newswire service provided a list of coverage and page views associated with the press release.

So, what was the value of each press release?

I recently read a how-to article from a popular PR software company discussing how to determine the ROI of a press release. The blog post broke down, step by step, how to read that dashboard given after every distributed release, which showed figures about how many people read your release, how many interactions it received, and more.

The post was factually correct. Distribution services do provide dashboards with this information, and sometimes, that can be valuable. That's not what bothered me about the article.

I was concerned that the post would foster a false understanding of the real value of a press release. The post made it seem like all a company needs to do is put a press release on the newswire and review the metrics in the report. Presto—instant ROI! Your job is done.

I'm sorry... but no.

That viewpoint is a dangerous and unfair misconception to be promoting. Press release reprints are not the same as coverage in earned media. They don't have the credibility of a news article written by an independent journalist. Those press releases are included in a separate area of the publication's website separate from the news, and they are often hosted on the newswire's website (which is made to look like the publication).

Here's a fun challenge: Try to find a press release on the news website that shows up in the press release wire's report without following the link in the report or using a search engine.

Those press releases do have some SEO value in that they can appear in searches for applicable keywords, but that value cannot be measured in these reports.

Dashboard Numbers Are Not Reliable

One of my clients recently distributed a release that had about 1,000 fewer views than the previous four releases. When we asked for an explanation for the huge difference, we were told that possible factors included the day of the week we distributed (for the record, it was a Thursday, which is a perfectly good day for distributing a release in today's digital world where weekly magazines are not sent to print on Thursdays), and the time of year (which fell about two weeks after quarterly earnings were distributed by many large companies).

The frustrating part of that answer was that the client really didn't know why the number was lower. Moreover, the client couldn't offer advice about preventing that drop from happening again.

That example circles us back nicely to my argument that, while the dashboard numbers are nice, they really are not a reliable form of measurement.

Measuring the Value of Press Releases

So, what should companies look for to measure a release?

First, you need to remember that figuring out the bottom line value of a press release is so much more than the raw numbers that a distribution service sends you.

Moreover, when we talk about a "press release," we have to think about the point behind it—the news.

What did your press release announce? If it was a product, you probably wanted to get it in front of potential customers and perhaps current clients. Your press release dashboard may say 1,000 people "viewed" your release... but are the viewers your priority targets?

Getting in front of those targets—and thus getting value out of a press release—starts long before the distribution itself. Before you put out a release, you need to ask yourself who should care.

If you are announcing a product, you want your current and potential customers to see the news.

If you are announcing a major new hire, you probably want potential customers to see it but also investors and perhaps even competitors.

Once you've established your target readers, you need to determine which publications they read and respect.

Then you need to figure out how to work with the reporters and editors from those publication so the true value of your new product gets explained directly to your potential and current customers. (I cannot emphasize enough how important third-party validation is.) Amplifying that news by showing your expertise through thought-leadership activities, such as writing about issues affecting your industry.

If you are looking at measurement, we have found that one good way to measure the success of your news is to analyze website traffic. This method is not perfect (yet!), but it can provide extremely valuable insights.

To get the most out of your website analytics, you should set a goal with a timeline before you put out your news.

For example, your goal might be increasing organic new visitors to your product page by 15% in the 30 days after distributing the news. Website visitors aren't a sale itself. But if you have targeted the right people and publications with your news and also garnered some bylines, you have positioned yourself to gain organic traffic from them and the press release.

Remember that if you are only measuring the views of the release, you are likely not seeing the bigger picture.

* * *

I'm not saying don't put press releases on a newswire. Our firm does this regularly for clients. I'm also not saying that the metrics distribution services send users are wrong—I believe they're accurate.

However, companies without PR or media experts advising them should understand that putting a press release on a newswire—even with a metrics bowtie—is not a sound PR strategy by itself.

You need to take a strategic, comprehensive view of your news within the context of your industry before you even think about setting up a release. Only when you understand your goals can you determine the real ROI.

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The Truth About Press Release Metrics

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image of Lydia Fakhouri (Howard)

Lydia Fakhouri (Howard) is employee communications manager, Consumer & Marketplace, at Nike.

LinkedIn: Lydia Fakhouri

Twitter: @lydiafakhouri