Prove It!

Ah, the fall budget-planning season. You can smell the purity of intent in the air, a conviction for zero-based objectivity and sincerity in looking to right the wrongs of the past 12 months.

At this time of year, when the phrase “demand for accountability” is doled out like flu shots, let’s recognize that although the online medium is best positioned to establish the standard for marketing return on investment (ROI), there’s work to be done.

The cognoscenti can quote chapter and verse about the value of placing your first and last dollar online, but have the bridges really been extended to the unconverted? As the big media buyers and their clients still clamor for evidence of online marketing’s broad viability, I’d say the answer is no.

Why is this still the case? Hasn’t the industry trotted out stacks of research to validate the Web as a powerful advertising medium? Undoubtedly. But in far too many cases, the biggest challenge for corporate marketers is to synchronize corporate Web site reporting requirements not only with outbound online marketing but also with broader company business models.

Senior corporate executives consider online marketing campaigns, email, and on-site advertising to be anchored to driving inbound traffic to a company’s Web site, via click- or view-through. No one would argue this belief is wrong; it just highlights the vulnerability of online advertising budgets. Only a linear relationship is assumed.

The expectation reveals a demand to prove the business impact of a company’s Web site, grounded in that company’s entire 4 Ps strategy (product, price, placement, and promotion), not merely a narrowly beneficial e-business model. In other words, if there’s tangible proof www.companyname.com serves all segments and sales channels appropriately, budget support can be justified for online advertising.

Obvious, right? You’re thinking, “Wait, this isn’t 1997. Of course we capture data in our Web traffic patterns.” But… is the resulting data connected to the multiple business objectives of the company, or were reporting parameters developed in a vacuum, without bottom-line insight? Based on Web site traffic preference patterns, have the top money-making and -saving online initiatives been clearly defined and endorsed across multiple departments?

Placing and maintaining tracer tags on a Web site to track ad serving and/or email distribution is relatively easy. So is deploying any of several Web traffic measurement tools. Though the IT team may own the application layers on which these landmarks reside, the challenge to those of us looking for broader online marketing acceptance is: Did marketing, sales, and customer care collaborate with IT on what the reports capture? Have representatives from these departments sat in the same room to discuss budget planning for Web site reporting?

This is the time of the year to think about these matters and to secure buy-in to gather the proof you need to justify increased online marketing dollars. Far too often, Web site reporting budgets are pushed to the bottom of the priority list or neglected all together. Yet the information in these reports, aligned properly, is key for promoting the far-reaching influence of online marketing.

It’s urgent to devise Web site traffic reporting planning now for the 2004 calendar year. Waiting until March or April, when headcount resources are likely to be etched in stone, will only create internal business ownership debates and political infighting. I find it critical to empower IT teams with equivalent decision-making responsibility early, or risk solidifying the I’m-just-taking-orders role and all the resulting inertia.

Nothing quashes hackneyed opinions like a fact. Two words of advice for online marketing advocates looking to secure bigger budgets: Prove it.

  • Don’t rest on Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) study laurels by aligning your needs with a similar Cross Media Operation Study (XMOS) participant. Build your own case.

  • Web site reporting requirements cannot be relegated to a last-minute scramble on December 31. Bring the IT team in now so sufficient resources can be locked in for expanding support throughout next year.
  • Employ a big-tent strategy. Reach out to segment marketing, non-Web sales, and customer lifecycle VPs. Ask what they’d like captured from Web site traffic data. Take the initiative. Play Kissinger between disparate departments.
  • On the outbound side, demand analysis from your vendors, not regurgitation of campaign results. You pay for insight, not dictation.

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