Optimization and Analytics: A Branding Problem

We have a branding problem.

My friends Michael and Kathryn sell cheese for a living. I am often jealous of them, not for their cholesterol levels, but because when someone asks what they do, they need only reply, “We sell cheese.” Listeners immediately understand that occupation. Sure, Michael and Kathryn may mix it up a bit and refer to themselves as “purveyors of cheese” or even the continental “fromager” from time to time, but more often than not, the likelihood of rampant confusion at cocktail parties is minimal. Ah, the simplicity.

Let us, as an exercise, contrast that to my job in the optimization department at our agency. “Optimization” may be the worst name ever for a discipline. Talk about ambiguous to the point of nonsensical. Who doesn’t optimize at their job? Lance Armstrong “optimizes” his speed and technique on a bicycle. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “optimizes” troop training and deployment to Afghanistan. And down the street from our agency’s Seattle office, the good people at the Dahlia Bakery “optimize” their breakfast sandwiches and pastries to keep addicts like me coming back.

Even within the Web industry, optimization is an unclear term at best. Nine times out of 10, people think I do search engine optimization, which I don’t. Plus, saying that I work on the “optimization” team is kind of a backhand to all other Web disciplines. Our usability team optimizes Web sites all the time. Same with our designers and analytics folks. Even our development team optimizes in its own special, pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain kind of way. I’ve been going back and forth with one of our crack test designers about the actual definition of what we do in the optimization group and — at least at this stage of the conversation — have landed here: “The practice of improving user experience online by testing alternatives and measuring test outcomes quantitatively in order to understand user behavior and preferences.” Pretty accurate, but kind of a mouthful to slap onto a business card.

The same problem exists elsewhere. I spoke to Chris Kerns, our director of analytics, and he has run into the same issue. Too often, “analytics” is thought of as a group of data monkeys sitting in cubicles sifting through spreadsheets all day and pumping out scorecards by the fistful. While knowing the data is absolutely part of the job, a good analyst will also get inside the client’s industry and business model to understand goals and key drivers, build monetization models to chart ROI (define), prioritize upcoming activities, and deliver actionable insights behind the numbers to clients. But still, the “analytics” group (and, indeed, the industry) is very often misunderstood — believed to be a herd of geeks knee-deep in SQL queries and statistical modeling, never seeing the light of day.

Tool providers, as they mature, are adding some confusion of their own as they struggle to explain exactly what they do to the world and potential customers. Phrases like “business intelligence,” “customer relationship marketing,” and “enterprise marketing management” are thrown around. The companies are obviously setting their sights on increasing their offerings and market share, but with increased scope comes a lack of clarity in the talking points.

As an industry, we are struggling to communicate an integrated vision that explains our position in the marketplace. At our agency, we’ve been embracing the concept of “performance marketing” over “analytics” and “optimization.” Everyone gets what “marketing” is. And the “performance” aspect seems to sum up how well how we measure the effectiveness of online efforts so that we can constantly improve them. It’s the opposite of the old days of the Web, where you’d work to get a site or campaign live for four months, celebrate, and then move on to the next big thing. With “performance marketing,” you are actively taking the pulse of your marketing activities with your key business goals on center stage.

Is performance marketing as easy to grok as “selling cheese”? Probably not. But we’re getting better with each change, which is really what performance marketing is all about.

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