In the past decade, marketers and the ecosystem that surrounds them have focused intensely, investing heavily in making direct connections between marketing spend and specific, attributable results. That’s a good thing, and the accountability of digital efforts has largely driven its growth. But we lose valuable nuance when we disregard all that is not accurately and completely quantifiable. There is clearly still a relevant and worthwhile tale to be told by customer actions that are not tied to specific marketing triggers. That tale can inform and enhance budgetary and other marketing decision making if we are smart enough to listen.
Soft Metrics: A Matter of Definition
Some of this debate over hard vs soft metrics is a matter of definition. We can take cues from audience actions in a geography that has been receiving marketing spend to determine whether that spend achieves lift over control geographies that were ignored. Is that a hard metric if it does not tie the specific spend to the specific outcome by channel, by campaign, by message, by offer, by customer?
Soft metrics are often those that demonstrate intent or interest but may not be ultimately quantifiable down to the buyer, the sale or other valued conversion. Often they are generalized effects like a rise in site traffic that can be tracked but may not tie to direct conversions or customers. Other types of soft metrics are those that can’t be tracked reliably at all – like many offline ad expenditures. But we have to stop and remember that it doesn’t make them valueless just because we can’t place a value on them.
Soft metrics are still critical because they often establish behaviors that signal intent. Sometimes, for instance with highly considered purchases, the soft metrics can be personally identifiable or at least allow for customizable content delivery even if the individual is not identified. This supports additional follow ups and identifies those most relevant for particular messaging or offers. Setting the stage, if you will, for that measurable conversion down the line.
Make Sure You Have the Full Picture
For brick and mortar retailers, restaurants, CPG marketers and others, the drive to reveal the path from online messaging to offline conversion has been powerful. But tracking the results of online messaging or experiences to foot traffic or in-store sales is a tricky and incomplete effort. We often don’t know if the least traceable efforts are the most or least impactful. Most important, however, is the sum impact of all the efforts. Looking at all the insights available – both hard and soft – will give you the best picture to trend over time and use to make decisions.
Hard metrics have their own limits. We may think of them as an absolute straight line in a controlled environment but that is an illusion. First, there are limits on the accuracy of tracking across channels and platforms and even the smartest marketers still struggle to establish clean data with baselines and trends that are reliable. Secondly, it’s not clean. We can’t discern a myriad non-traceable influences like some competitive actions, or offline influences like first person recommendations – even a consumer’s mood. Macro effects that can be expressed by things like sales rises are most often the result of many, many efforts. Some are in are control and trackable and some are not.
The best marketers can do is measure what we have available and take into account all the information at our disposal – whether it is hard or soft. Information is never complete. A marketer’s job is to use the information at hand to understand consumer needs and reactions to certain stimuli to the best of
their ability. That means making use of everything at their disposal, weighting it for confidence and relevancy. Consider the hard data just the tip of the iceberg and ignore the rest at your peril.