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Traditional metrics don’t capture the value of social media

Measures need revising, or people will get burned by brand marketing

Marketing online has, in many respects, been a battleground between two different camps of marketing strategy: branding and direct.

One camp brings years of cognitive science, psychology, and the language and imagery of narrative to the battleground. The other brings statistics, algorithmic math, and the language and imagery of systems. In between is almost every combination of those things you can imagine.

In a practical sense, direct marketing tends to focus on very clear metrics that obviously relate to the bottom line. The branding camp also has metrics, but their connection to the bottom line is seemingly more tenuous.

Direct marketing online talks about return on investment. It talks about funnels. It talks about attrition rates, optimization and conversion tools.

Branding talks about mindshare. It talks about customer decision journey. It talks about growing an audience, embedding and loyalty.

The reason that both exist and proponents of these strategies continue to make snide remarks about one another is that, frankly, neither one is that much better than the other. In other words, they both work just fine as approaches to marketing.

But for different situations. And for different organizations.

Part of the problem of "Best Practicism" is that it assumes that everyone’s situation is the same. Two different businesses rarely possess the exact same situation to the degree that a best practice can be imported and uploaded wholesale into the business and create the same results.

Be wary of Best Practicists who don’t recognize the situations in which their best practices work. They are either lucky, charlatans, clueless or some combination of the three.

This is true for both branding-heavy strategies and direct marketing-heavy strategies. Even though the direct marketing-focused people are more susceptible to Best Practicism due to their math and evidence-based approach, branding-focused people are similarly swayed by an exciting narrative of success against overwhelming odds.

One area that really gets wires crossed between brand strategists and direct strategists is metrics. Many branding people approach metrics as a necessary evil at best. Evidence of this can be found in many of the branding awards, which include exactly zero information about how the specific campaign helped keep the company in business.

In the absence of metrics-loving branding people, advertising channels such as newspapers, television and Facebook have been very happy to provide some metrics. This is how so many organizations have devoted resources to growing friend counts on platforms they don’t control without having any idea how this activity relates to the bottom line. Follower count is a great metric if you are a media channel; it gets everyone invested in growing the user base of your channel.

Similarly, branding strategies will not thrive in an environment of direct marketing metrics. The reach/acquisition/conversion configuration isn’t going to end well for a branding effort. The reason for this is that there is rarely a clearly defined conversion event. There may be a conversion metric but it’s typically either too soft to carry any meaning ("make people think we’re cool") or too hard to be plausible ("view our viral video that doesn’t mention our services, then use our services").

I don’t bring up this metrics thing to accuse branding of being useless. Just that newcomers to the branding camp are less likely to find meaningful metrics. And since businesses typically need some set of numbers to live by, the new brander will be looking and make an error selecting either metrics supplied by suppliers or by following the wisdom of a Best Practicist that may or may not have a similar situation.

For the past 10 years or so direct marketing has ruled the Web, much to the chagrin of brand marketers. In a search-oriented, AdWords-driven world, the clean efficiency of the direct approach really shines.

Social media has changed that and thrown a bit of a lifeline to brand marketers. Finally, a medium that isn’t so brutally aligned with direct marketing algorithmic approaches gives a foothold to those wishing a return to the good old days of the simple ad spend and creative messaging.

But since the Web grew up with direct marketing metrics, the main measures are still not well aligned with branding. And given the unique challenges for which brand marketing strategies are best suited, it’s unlikely we’ll get a solid set of "standard" metrics.

What’s the equivalent of "bounce rate" in a brand strategy and how do you measure it? What’s the equivalent of a "conversion" in a brand strategy and how do you measure it (and does your organization have the will to do what it takes to measure this)? Is simply growing an audience enough to justify the expenditure of resources?

These issues are important in real estate marketing. Many real estate marketers are quite familiar with direct marketing tactics if not strategy. Consistent messaging and repetition are talked about in nearly every venue that marketing is discussed.

But if brand marketing is now as accessible to the majority of businesses via social marketing in the same way that direct marketing became accessible via search marketing, is the landscape going to shift in a manner equivalent to the period of 2002-2008?

The measures will need revising, and new learning will have to take place. Or people will get really really burned on branding hoohah.

And if those who promote branding don’t take it upon themselves to organize around measures that generate meaning, will they end up with the same reputation as SEO sales letter marketers?

If that were to occur, it would be a shame. Both approaches to marketing are valid and useful in their appropriate circumstances.

Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt.

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