Would you know a successful process if you saw one? Or: A return to hierarchy-of-effects

If you’ve read (or leafed through) Strategizing Communication, you’ll know that we advocate an approach of ‘practising strategizing’ – or planning for process, if you like. Thus, we aim to pragmatically combine the best of several paradigms; strategic communication as deliberately planned transmission and as collaboratively emergent process. One of the reasons we do not want to discard the notion of planning completely, is our belief that it is essential to set goals for one’s communication and to be able to evaluate whether or not these goals are achieved. The goals, for sure, may change as the process unfolds in ways one might not have planned for – or it may turn out that the plan actually led to different results than one had envisioned. However, if there are no pre-set communication objectives, there are no guidelines for planning the process, nor any benchmarks for evaluating how it played out.

Citing Yogi Berra (the baseball player, not the cartoon character), Patti et al. (2015) argue that setting objectives is paramount because:


We agree. Without objectives, you’ll not only be lost along the way, you won’t know whether or not you ended up in the right place either. Only if we have objectives in mind, will we know whether or not the process – as it actually played out – was successful or not. Having a plan for the process, then, may not always take you where you want to go, but at least it means you’ve got a chance of getting there – and a means of finding out whether where you actually ended up was better or worse than what you intended.

Thus, even if one does not think of communicative effect as a direct transmission of the communicator’s intention to the audience’s head, one must have some means of articulating the underlying intention of the communication and of measuring whether or not the intention was realized. This line of thinking leads us to a return to the otherwise much criticized notion of hierarchy-of-effects. Hierarchy-of-effects models have great difficulty in explaining and predicting how audiences will actually respond to communication, but even so they offer good practical tools for setting communication objectives. This is especially true for models that Dagmar-Defining-Advertising-Goals-for-Measured-Advertising-Results-Dutka-Solomon-9780844234229both forego strict divisions between cognitive, affective and behavioural effects and leave one-directional sequences of e.g. attention, interest, desire and action behind. If the most simplistic idea of a hierarchy is abandoned, we are left with useful tools for articulating communication objectives that are attuned to the specific communicative context.

One particularly useful model is that of Defining Advertising Goals for Measured Advertising Results (DAGMAR), which was originally proposed in the book by the same name in 1961. In their presentation of DAGMAR, De Pelsmacker, Geuens & Van Den Bergh (2013: 156) render the model thus:


While clearly moulded on a series of steps from initial awareness to final purchase, DAGMAR incorporates a number of more precise elements and allows the communicator to focus his or her efforts at any point(s) rather than necessarily working through the whole sequence. This not only makes it a great planning tool, but also means it can be usefully applied in analysis of audiences’ actual relations with a brand – before and after the communicative engagement. Further, and as the name indicates, DAGMAR has the virtue of being imminently measurable. That is, using this model one can stipulate specific and specifically quantifiable goals for the communication. For instance, if one finds that building brand awareness should be the main aim, one can go on to specify the number of people (or percentage of a target group) that should become aware of the brand as a result of the communication. Similarly, if the ultimate aim is to increase sales, one can specify how large an increase to aim for – and what other aims might have to be fulfilled in order to get there. And so on – in any imaginable combination.

Today, we have more means of measuring the process of communication than ever (as we’ve discussed in the blog posts on Data-mining, Big data, and Netnography), but these are mostly and most directly relevant in terms of evaluating the communicative process as process. As such, they lend themselves most readily to the test of media objectives whereas communication objectives are still left a bit in the dark. Not because communication objectives are impossible to measure, but because many communicators do not pose the objectives as clearly as they could and do not test whether the objectives are reached as rigorously as they should. Using a model such as DAGMAR to plan and assess the communication provides one means of both overcoming the shortfalls of current practices and putting the new tools for monitoring process to even better use.

Just remember: DAGMAR may provide you with the means of finding out where you want to go and assessing where you ended up, but it does not give you any indication of how to actually get there. Thus, the measures of communicative success for today and tomorrow may be the same as yesterday and yesteryear, but the means of communicating successfully are, now, completely different. Hierarchy-of-effects models do not help you actually carry out your process, but they provide an apt framework for the planning of it.

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