The Missing ROI Metric

Money. Cash. Scratch. Dough. Green.

Got your attention? Of course I did. These days, probably more than ever. With a not-so-robust economy and ad spending still in the doldrums, most of us are preoccupied with money.

On the agency side, we’re scrambling to get more of it from clients, who in turn are adamant they’ll spend less. Look at the whole marketing sector, online is probably taking more than its fair share of budget cuts.

“We’ve got a Web site,” some prospects say when approached about improving their Web presence. “We’re taking it in-house,” reply others, who eagerly snatch up unemployed former dot-commers and other layoff victims. “You’re just too expensive!” complain some, who turn to mom and pops they wouldn’t have given the time of day to three years ago.

We’ve heard every version of no.

Not that there aren’t good reasons for no. The online marketing industry must bear its fair share of blame. Years of overpricing, overpromising, and underdelivering have taken their toll. “We just feel like we’ve been ripped off,” someone confided recently about an unhappy string of Web vendor relationships.

For one reason or another, many companies are holding back when it comes to spending online, either on advertising or development. They feel they’ve been there and done the Net thing. They cut online budgets and spend what little is left on traditional media.

Makes sense, right?

Wrong. It makes less sense now than ever.

Why? The Web has become a vital part of American life and buying habits. According to a new study from the Pew Internet & the American Life Project, over 60 percent of Americans now have Internet access. Of these, a full 68 percent have used the Internet for over three years. Thirty-eight percent have been online over six years. We’re talking pretty sophisticated users who have made the Web an ongoing part of their lives.

“So what?” you may be asking, sweating over another year’s budget. “A lot of people use the Web. We know that. What’s it doing for us?”

Good question. And one not easily answered, especially using commonly established metrics. For years, we’ve been sold a bill of goods that says if there’s no direct action from the consumer through the site, the site’s not doing its job. If a visit doesn’t result in a buy or a registration or some directly measurable result, it’s not working.

This slavish reliance on direct models may be fatally flawed when applied to the effect a company’s Web presence has on visitors. Digging deeper into the new Pew report, it turns out consumers use the Web as a central, primary information source. Whether hunting for government, health, news, or product information, 97 percent of users expect to find information they seek online. The Web has become so well known as an information source that 64 percent of nonusers report they’d expect to find information they need online. If information about your product or service isn’t available online, it might as well not exist at all.

Measuring only direct response limits a company’s understanding of how consumers use its site. They may never buy or register or sign up for email. Yet it’s statistically certain if they’re thinking about buying your product or service, they’ll research it on the Web.

Will this result in a direct Web sale? An inquiry? Maybe…but the study also found 46 percent of consumers surveyed would be more likely to go offline to buy a product if a company had information about it online. Online information drives offline sales, something not measured by online shopping carts.

Exactly how and when the Web gets worked into the buying decision process may be ultimately unknowable… and ultimately unimportant The point is consumers are going online expecting information they want will be there.

When you’re working up budgets and considering online cutbacks, remember: The Web is more important to consumer buying decisions than ever. No matter what you sell — government services, products, healthcare information, or even news — the Web is a central part of consumers’ decision making process. Neglecting this, thinking you can slide by without compelling experiences and robust stores of information on your site, is a fool’s bargain. You may save money now. In the long run, you’re crippling one of your most vital sales tools: the connected consumer’s expectation of information.

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