Grand Uniform Advertising Theory

I’ve been hustling to finish a feature for another publication on tools like Aria eCommerce from Andromedia Inc., in San Francisco, Hit List Live from Marketwave Inc., in Seattle, Net.Analysis from Net.Genesis Inc. of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Accrue Insight from Accrue Software Inc. in Fremont, California.

When they first came out a few years ago, these were called web log analysis tools. They turned the logs of your web site activity into a database you could analyze for clues as to what you were doing right, what you were doing wrong, and how to change things for the better.

Somewhere along the way, they’ve gotten bigger, better and more ambitious. When my editor gave me this story, she called them, “ROI tools.” (ROI isn’t a French King but the entrepreneur’s best friend, Return On Investment.)

This is pricey stuff. Most vendors start quoting prices at $10-15,000 but scale them up based on your log volume and/or the number of servers you have. After you pay someone to install and manage these tools, you’re easily out $50,000 or more. (If the tools become essential to any site’s success, they could provide yet another barrier to entry keeping tomorrow’s entrepreneurs off the web.)

But the promise of this approach apparently has these vendors grabbing checks as fast as customers can write them. As your web site becomes the hub for all marketing activity, ROI tools become the true kings of your castle.

Consider that most TV and radio ads will cause a spike in site traffic-now you can measure and evaluate it. Put a slight twist in the URL on your billboards or magazine ads and voila-you can measure their impact.

The goal is to replace seat-of-the-pants marketing with cold, hard numbers, which you can dress up into fancy charts. Whether you’re using TV, radio, billboards, email, web banners, or sponsorship of a golf tournament (don’t you wish you had your name on last weekend’s Woods-Garcia battle?), you should be able to boil it down to hard numbers.

The question I have to ask (skeptic that I am) is whether this kind of hard-boiled analysis is all to the good. We saw in the last decade how top managers became slaves to numbers and lost contact with the fact that companies are composed of human beings.

The fact is there will always be more art than science to marketing-people are too complex for it to ever be otherwise. An over-reliance on numbers (even if they’re really good numbers) may not be the best approach. But it’s hard to see how the seat-of-your-pants or gut feel will argue in the future against the cold, hard numbers these programs provide.

Of course, it could be I’m just being paranoid. (Writers who keep their antennae up all day risk that.) Hard evidence that your approach in a site redesign or a TV campaign is right or wrong has always been desirable.

But just as real justice is more than the facts and the law, remember that there are real users and customers behind the numbers these tools generate. A grand unified advertising theory sounds as nifty to me as a grand unified field theory does to Prof. Hawking…so long as the theory doesn’t distract from the awe of what works.

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