I attended a seminar earlier in January held by the Direct Marketing Club of New York titled “Annual Outlook: What to Expect in Direct & Digital Marketing in 2012.” The main speaker at the event was Bruce Biegel, managing director at the Winterberry Group, a strategic consulting firm that focuses on advertising and marketing.
For those of you who have never before attended an event where Biegel presents, I highly recommend attending one if you get a chance. He’s a highly engaging speaker with many interesting insights gleaned from years of experience in the field, and backed by the research and analytics of the Winterberry Group.
The focus of the presentation was a review of the marketing and advertising world of 2011, along with some predictions for 2012. According to Biegel, 2011 was the year in which many firms intensified their focus on reporting and analytics tools. For 2012, he predicted many marketers will finally begin to pursue true multichannel integration across their firms, driven by data, analytics and the quest for cross-channel attribution. He touched on the term attribution repeatedly, referring to it as the “Holy Grail” of multichannel marketing.
In a marketing sense, I define attribution—or the “A-word” for the purposes of this blog post—as the act of determining what marketing channel or budget was responsible for generating a particular action: be it a click, lead, order, etc. As a direct marketer, I just love this word. And you should, too. Attribution is where the rubber meets the road. Attribution is what separates the men from the boys, the measurable from the immeasurable, direct response from … well, branding. Not to disparage brand marketing, but I think I can speak for most—if not all—colleagues in the industry when I say that demonstrable attribution is really what has always separated direct response marketing from branding—analytics that essentially give us the ability to calculate the actual ROI of every precious marketing dollar we spend. Enough said.
But, let’s face it, there’s a dirty little secret in the direct response community that those outside of it might not necessarily be aware of. The fact is that attribution has not been all it’s cracked up to be over the past 10 years—and a far cry from an exact science, to say the least. We have the Internet to thank for that. To elaborate, let’s take a moment and turn back the clock around 15 to 20 years, and think back to a time in which the Web did not play such a prominent role in our lives. Back then, most direct response marketing was done via direct mail, catalogs and inserts, as well as DRTV. In this relatively simplistic world, customers could only really place orders using the return mailer or by calling a toll-free number. That was it. Since each piece was stamped with a keycode, attribution was as easy as: “Could you please tell me the five-digit code on the bottom right-hand corner of the order form” … and we knew with certainty why the sale originated.
Then along came the Web—and, with it, an entirely new channel for consumers to interact with their brands. And this is when things got confusing. Let’s say, for example, a consumer received a postcard or catalog from a company. In place of calling the toll-free number, he could instead go to Google and search for the website, find it, locate the products he’s interested in and place an order. Now who gets the credit for the sale? The direct mail team? The search engine marketing team? The catalog team? The email team? All of them? None of them? The fact is, there was really no scientific way to tell for sure. The gears of attribution broke down, creating a vast gray area of uncertainty where the worlds of traditional and new media converged. This was the direct marketer’s dirty little secret in the age of Web 1.0.
To deal with this mess, new techniques and technologies invariably emerged to bring some order to the chaos. Before long, many marketers turned to the concept of campaign-specific landing pages to send their cross-media (or cross-channel) customers to. At least this bypassed the regular website and kept and sales or leads it made in one bucket, separate from the home page and other Web traffic. This was a huge improvement.
Then other technologies like personalized URLs, or PURLS, entered the mix. Gimmicks aside, PURLs work because they are a tool for attribution—not because they give someone a link made out of their name. Sure, giving someone a personalized link is nice … but that’s only window dressing and obfuscates the real value of this cross-media technology. PURLs help marketers attribute activity to the direct mail channel. That’s it in a nutshell. Now of course, there are additional benefits, such as improved Web traffic rates resulting from personalized content, and higher website conversion rates due to a simplified workflow on a landing page that’s been optimized for this purpose alone. But the real value of this technology is attribution—and don’t ever let anyone else tell you otherwise.
Similarly, across other channels useful cross-media technologies emerged like QR Codes, which really solve in mobile the same issue marketers face on desktop Web browsers—namely, the inability to properly track and attribute cross-media actions resulting from their offline campaigns. When push comes to shove, sending individuals to purpose-built, mobile-optimized landing pages, personalized or not, enables precise tracking and measurement, not to mention a better overall user experience and, presumably, a higher conversion rate, too.
Looking forward, the next stage in attribution will most certainly need to deal with the advent of Web 2.0 and the world of social media. Seeing as firms are now making investments in social media strategy, CMOs are going to want to attach some kind of ROI calculation to the mix. Now, of course, you could pretty easily argue that it’s absurd to try to assign any type of ROI to social media in the first place. In that vein, Scott Stratten has a great blog post called “Things We Should Ask The ROI Question About Before Social Media” on UnMarketing that does just that pretty convincingly. But that’s an argument for another time and place. Regardless of whether you feel it’s a smart policy, I think it’s safe to say that where the marketing dollars go, pressure will ultimately follow to show value (ROI).
At the same time, regardless of what dollars are being spent and how these expenditures make CFOs hyperventilate, social media can and do generate sales for organizations. This is an indisputable fact and should not be up for debate anymore. What is in question is the ability of firms to track what happens in social media and attribute the activity to this emerging channel. As we speak, we’re starting to see the introduction of the first generation of effective tools (SocialCRM) that track social media interactions among pools of prospects or leads, and make them available to marketing teams for actionable analysis and follow up. Very cool stuff. But, of course, social media data are only one piece of a much larger puzzle, named “Big Data.” I briefly touched on Big Data in a previous post titled “Deciphering Big Data Is Key to Understanding Buyer’s Journey.”
Actually, on that note, I think this is a good place for me to call it a day. Not only am I running out of space for this post, but that last thought will make a great segue to my next post, which will address the amazing transformation that is taking place within many firms as they deal with the endless volumes of unstructured data (Big Data) they are tracking and storing every day. This wholesale repurposing aims not only to make sense out of this trove of data, but also to break down the walls separating the various silos where the data are stored, such as CRM/SocialCRM platforms, social media websites, marketing automation tools, email software, Web servers and more. Stay tuned next time for more on this topic.
Until then, I welcome any questions, comments or feedback.