Mac and I spent the better part of last week with our clients at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted solely to the public’s health.

There, we attended a convening of RWJF’s communications firms from across the US, to learn more about strategic priorities and considerations for 2015.

The presentation kicked off with the message pictured above which reads:

“The only time you can honestly know you’ve delivered your message is when you hear it back from the audience. Not necessarily in the words you used, but with the core message intact…Your audience has taken what you have to say, internalized it and made it part of their own thinking. That is success in communications.”

While this isn’t a ground-breaking approach to measuring communications success, I think it’s an important principle to keep in mind—and one that we often forget when messaging the value of our communications programs to internal and external stakeholders.

The Value of Qualitative Data

Instead of bragging about qualitative value like that referenced in the slide, we often default to the hard stuff—the quantitative data… the tangible, gripable, braggable numbers that support our work.

Those numbers are meaty. We can chew on them like a delicious, juicy hamburger. We can dress them up and package them neatly…between the two sides of a fresh, hot Kaiser roll.

I get it.

We humans really like numbers. Psychology Today, says we’re “obsessed” with them, in fact. Think about it—numbers rule our lives… we use them to set an alarm clock, manage our finances, measure recipes.

Numbers make our life easier in many ways.

Numbers are important.

The Value of Quantitative Data

But, numbers don’t always tell the whole story like qualitative data.

Qualitative data, often more art than science, paints a bigger picture—a sometimes abstract, impressionistic picture—of how we’re doing—how well our efforts are paying off.

This picture might be murky—it might be anecdotal. We might not be able to neatly plug it into a spreadsheet—and you number collectors of the world really don’t like things you can’t plug into a spreadsheet. I know because I am one of you.

Qualitative data forces us to take a kind of leap of faith that we are correct in connecting the dots between our work and the real life action our target audiences take. Actions they take that might not always have numbers attached to them. Like the slide references…actions that don’t spit our message back at us—but rather spit a version of our message back… as translated by the various receivers of that message.

Success Beyond the Numbers

And if, like RWJF, you’re using communications to help you effect significant change that will be seen for generations—the qualitative information you collect might end up helping you measure real success considerably more than real numbers.

In essence, qualitative data is the figurative sum of our numbers, our efforts—it’s the whole of our parts… the cumulative taste of all those ingredients we put into that cake we baked.

Qualitative data allows us to measure the real life impact of what we do: how people perceive us in their own words, our message pull-through. It allows us a glimpse into what all those numbers add up to. It helps us build a narrative—and, ultimately, a story—about our hard work.

I’m not arguing against quantitative data—don’t get me wrong. Quantitative data has a significant role in building and measuring communications objectives, motivating us to keep going, and, of course, it makes our number-loving, human hearts really happy.

I’m simply encouraging you to look at the WHOLE picture—the anecdotes, the stories, and the way our messages are being pulled through—before deeming your communications efforts successful or not.

As renowned storyteller Andy Goodman has been known to say: “No one ever marched on Washington because of a pie-chart.”

Point taken, Mr. Goodman. Point taken.

How do YOU measure success in communications?