Digital Marketing’s Measurement Problem

I finally bought the shoes!

A few weeks ago, I had been looking for a new pair of trail shoes. I was hoping to get in on the post-season sales before next year’s version was released. I visited my go-to online shoe retailer, but had apparently missed out on all the clearance sales. Unless I wanted to fit my size 15 feet into a pair of size 7 shoes.

I looked at the new model, but decided to wait until Spring to pick up the new pair.

Then the shoes followed me. Every web page I visited contained an ad for those shoes. My social media news feed was interrupted with images of the shoes. They followed me everywhere I went.

After a few weeks of shoe-related ads… I clicked on a display ad and bought the shoes.

The shoe-marketing-folks saw my click and my purchase. That website, and that ad buy, got the credit for a pair of shoes out the door.

Digital marketing offers incredible measurement opportunities. A quote often attributed to 19th century merchant and marketing pioneer John Wanamaker says, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The only problem is, I don’t know what half”. As marketing shifted to digital, it became enticing to think that Wanamaker’s marketing ignorance was a thing of the past.

But was that banner ad really responsible for my shoe purchase? What about the weeks of continued exposure and reminder? Would I have bought the shoes without that? Or did this ad just happen to be the one of 20 or 30 that caught me at a time I was able to pull out my wallet?

For that matter, could their digital campaign get all the credit? It was already my “go-to online shoe retailer”. I went directly to their website before I saw their ads…I think. Something else brought me to their front-door.

The danger of digital marketing is that we can fall into the trap of “last click attribution” (Gordon, 2021). We measure the success of the last exposure that preceded the desired action. That type of measurement can tempt us to look only at the short-term results of our campaigns and completely miss the long game. We measure the tactics, not the strategy.

There are a few things we can do to put digital metrics into perspective:

Identify the purpose of each campaign

Loosely, our marketing campaigns can be identified as Brand Awareness or Direct Response. Brand awareness marketing is an effort to reinforce your presence in the life of your listener or potential listener. It seeks to establish a long-term brand reputation.

Direct response marketing is an attempt to prompt a specific action. For your station that could be a listening session, whitepaper download, financial gift, or any other measurable action. The ads I saw for those trail shoes were direct response ads.

If we try to use direct response metrics (conversion rate, click-thru rate) on our brand awareness ads, we run the risk of losing sight of the long-game in our marketing efforts. We play to short-term ad results, because they offer more certainty.

Take a holistic view of our metrics

While it’s easy to track a digital display ad through a click to a transaction, it’s much more difficult to track brand awareness to cume growth. It would help to be aware of the campaigns we are running, and what is happening with our other KPI’s. Look beyond the numbers that the ad and social media platforms give you, and try to observe the big picture. While correlation and causation are different things, is there at least a correlation between your efforts and KPI’s?

Mix up your marketing efforts

While brand awareness campaigns may be difficult to measure, we can add direct response ads to help get a handle on the brand awareness effectiveness. At one of our stations, we created a downloadable devotional that we offer for free in a campaign (direct response). While the download helps us acquire names, the primary benefit is that it helps us get an idea of the visibility of our brand awareness ads.

We can also use our digital efforts to inform other marketing efforts. Ahead of a recent billboard campaign, we used digital ads to test response to a few different creative treatments. The digital measurement allowed us to have a better idea of what treatments were the most memorable or attention grabbing.

Digital marketing offers many benefits. The ability to target and measure is a powerful tool to use as we share our message. We just need to be careful to not fall into a measurement trap and lose site of the long-game.

Oh… and those shoes look great on me!

(Read more: Inefficiencies of Digital Marketing, Brett Gordon et al, Journal of Marketing, AMA, January, 2021)

Carl E Bliss
Director of Marketing
Northwestern Media

Carl Bliss is the Director of Marketing at Northwestern Media at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul. Northwestern Media operates 21 stations in 13 markets across 10 states, reaching more than 1.25 million listeners each week. You can connect with Carl on Twitter at @ckbliss

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