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The Metrics Don't Match the Media

  |  July 18, 2012   |  Comments

Why are we judging social and mobile advertising by the same metrics we use to measure online display or search advertising?

What's the click-through rate (CTR) on your latest TV campaign? How engaged are listeners with your radio spots? How "sticky" are your print ads?

If you're scratching your head right now or considering writing to the editors at ClickZ to notify them that one of their columnists has gone over the deep end, don't worry: of course these are absurd questions. The metrics don't match the media.

So why are we judging social and mobile advertising by the same metrics we use to measure online display or search advertising?

In a time when more and more marketing budgets are being moved into digital, this isn't a trivial question. If we're going to be spending money, we need to know if it's "working." It's impossible to know whether or not it's working if we're not measuring the right things. And the place where marketers (and everyone else) seem to be missing the mark the most when it comes to measurement these days is social media…Facebook in particular.

Facebook's been taking a lot of heat these days, especially after its disappointing (and over-hyped) IPO. The most recent hits it's been taking have come from the BBC, which made a big splash on July 13 by revealing the results of an experiment it conducted in order to find out the commercial value of consumer "likes" on the social networking service. Its bottom line: "companies are wasting large sums of money on adverts to gain 'likes' from Facebook members who have no real interest in their products," a conclusion reached after discovering that many "likes" come from people either not in the target market of the advertiser or from scammers, spammers, or simply people with fake profiles.

To be fair, the BBC followed up with a Q&A session with a "Facebook spokesperson" who was quick to point out just how great an advertising platform Facebook can be due to its huge audience and global reach (surprise!). Mr. Spokesperson also quibbled with the BBC's "experiment" (a page for a fake bagel shop) and the BBC's use of the "likes" metric with a local company on a global medium: "In the real world," opined Mr. Spokesperson, "if you hand out flyers for a pizza restaurant in Birmingham to people in Beijing and Mexico City, then you're not going to get the customers you want. The same applies to online advertising."

Not to sound too British, but yes, indeed. Using "likes" coming in from all over the globe as a metric for judging the effectiveness of a locally-focused Facebook ad is a little silly. Unless the aforementioned "pizza restaurant in Birmingham" has a world-wide reputation among customers rich enough to fly thousands of miles for a slice, worrying about "likes" from Mumbai doesn't make a lot of sense. Yet that's exactly what we do as an industry when judging the "effectiveness" of Facebook advertising. A recent poll by Reuters found that "four out of five Facebook Inc users have never bought a product or service as a result of advertising or comments on the social network site," leading it to conclude that "much more needs to be done to turn its 900 million customer base into advertising dollars."

Another poll conducted by the AP and CNBC before Facebook's IPO revealed that 85 percent of social media-using respondents rarely or never clicked on a Facebook ad and that 54 percent "would not feel safe purchasing goods and services like clothing or travel on Facebook." If that wasn't bad enough, only 18 percent of respondents had "deep confidence" in CEO Marc Zuckerberg's ability to run the company, though it added a ray of hope by adding that 51 percent of respondents who had seen "The Social Network" had a "favorable impression" of the young mogul.

All issues of bias aside (Reuters, AP, and CNBC are competitors of Facebook, after all), these measures of consumer behavior seem to match previous findings by outside analysts (though analysts with their own potential axes to grind). A May 2012 study by search marketing firm WordStream, for example, found that click-through rates for Facebook ads (0.051 percent) were "blown away" by the CTR of Google search ads (0.4 percent), ads which were also four times the average CTR across the web (0.1 percent). Another study by e-commerce consultants Monetate found that search was far more effective than either email or social media for driving traffic to e-commerce sites. While search drove 29.67 percent of inbound traffic, email drove a paltry 6.58 percent and social a mere 2.15 percent.

It would seem that in the Face(book) of numbers like this, marketers would be thinking twice about spending money on social, right? After all, recent predictions of social media ad spending forecast that search advertising spending will grow from the $3.8 billion spent in 2011 to almost $10 billion by 2016.

Maybe marketers would worry if they actually had a strategy for using social media or were even sure about how to measure its effectiveness. Unfortunately, as eConsultancy's "State of Social 2011" report revealed, two out of five companies can't put an ROI number on their social media spending and only one out of five companies were even able to calculate the ROI for half the money they were putting into social media. For most (two out of three companies surveyed), the best they could do was point to an increase in traffic to their corporate websites as a measure of success for their social media campaigns. Another study by eConsultancy earlier in the year was even more depressing when it came to indicating any level of sophistication with social marketing: 91 percent of marketers surveyed reported that traffic volume was an important metric. "Engagement"? "Brand awareness"? Yeah…they trailed way behind.

As marketers, we seem to have developed a kind of social media schizophrenia. We tell our clients (or bosses) that social media is important because it will allow us to "engage with our customers" and "build brand awareness among our target markets," yet we want to measure our success with simple metrics like click-throughs and likes and hits on our home pages.

So is all this social media stuff nothing more than high-minded hype destined to do nothing more than add a few more squares to our Buzzword Bingo cards? Is "social marketing" just smoke and mirrors? Does the emperor truly have no clothes?

Maybe not. Maybe the "failure" of Facebook advertising indicated in the studies mentioned earlier isn't a failure of the platform but of what we're measuring and what we expect social media to do. And I've got the infographic to prove it.

On the surface, MDG Advertising's "Social vs. Search" infographic might just seem like another cute chart. Choosing four different advertising goals - lead generation, brand awareness, driving people to local businesses, and encouraging consumers to interact with brands - it collates a number of different studies in order to compare the value of search and the value of social in achieving each outcome.

Not surprisingly, the bottom line is "you need both!" (it is an agency after all). It turns out that search is better for lead generation and local business visibility while social rules when it comes to driving brand awareness and interactivity. We all win!

All cheap sarcasm aside, there's something profound here when you look beneath the surface and think about why these numbers are what they are. The answer is pretty surprising.

Lead generation and local business visibility (the "search" winners) are highly-measurable, linear, consumer-directed behaviors. Leads are generated when people are researching what to buy and new customers come through the door of a local business when it meets a need they have. On the other hand, brand awareness and interactivity are a lot "squishier" and don't lend themselves as well to simple measurements. They're less about hard numbers and more about attitudes and feelings that eventually drive consumer behavior. "Search" is a "narrow" activity we engage in when we're trying to find something or solve a problem, while "social" is more about casting a wide net, interacting with our friends, and talking about our problems or needs. Seen in this light, "search" and "social" are two different behaviors that consumers engage in for different reasons. They're not the same…so why should they be measured in the same way?

One way to think about media choices in a more abstract sense is to think about their characteristics in terms of something we all have plenty of experience with: food. Consuming mass media, for example, is like being fed: it's a passive activity where we cede control to the programmers. Because it's a passive activity, it's good for telling people what to do, influencing attitudes and opinions by feeding them directly to consumers.

On the other hand, search is a lot more like preparing a meal and feeding ourselves. It's a controlled activity directed toward a goal (dinner) and proceeds in more or less linear steps. To market to people who are cooking their metaphorical dinners, the trick is to do what search does best by inserting your messages into the process and helping people find the information and ingredients they want.

Social…well, social's a big potluck party with tons of different grub heaped on tables prepared by our friends and waiting to be grazed and gobbled up as we see fit. In this kind of setting nobody wants a pushy host demanding that they try certain things. Social is about hanging out, chatting each other up, and sampling the nifty new things that others have brought to the table. Maybe we'll ask a friend for a recipe if we like a particular dish, but we want that decision to be our own.

I could torture this metaphor even more, but I think you get the point. Different media provide consumers with different things and offer different opportunities for marketers that depend on the different characteristics inherent in each particular medium. And because they're different, we should use different kinds of metrics to measure them and expect to evaluate their effectiveness in different ways. If we want to know where to advertise and how to measure if our advertising is "working" or not, we have to measure the right thing and expect the right results.

The bottom line? All ads are not created equal. Nor should they be. To accurately understand where to spend your marketing dollars, you have to understand what you're trying to accomplish, how to measure its effectiveness, and, above all, why one channel is better than another for what you're trying to do. Anything less and you're stuck with justifying your TV campaigns by measuring their click-through rates.

And that's just silly.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sean Carton

Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.

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