Last month I wrote about the advantages digital media has over traditional media. I heard from many people who agreed–and, of course, a few who didn’t.
While many in the latter camp have reasons to favor traditional media (calling to mind Upton Sinclair’s observation that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it”), a few also pointed out instances where digital is far from perfect. Most notably, these discussions centered around the challenges that come with measurement and our over-reliance on data. In the interest of being complete, therefore, I wanted to share some additional thoughts on that subject.
It is absolutely true that there are challenges in measuring the impact of digital media, especially when it comes to what stimulates a decision to buy. Consumers see a variety of messages before making a purchase, and they interact with brands in a variety of ways. Let’s imagine, for example, that you buy a new chainsaw on Amazon.com. Think of all the times you may have been influenced leading up to that purchase. You’d likely have different perceptions of brands in the category, formed by everything from product placement to package design. You would have likely heard radio spots or seen TV commercials for different chainsaws. And it’s very possible that price was a factor, with one brand standing out on a given day due to a promotion or sale.
It’s shortsighted, therefore, to attribute any single consumer action to any one interaction with a brand. Consumers usually click the “add to cart” button based on a collective set of impressions accumulated over time, not the last message that appeared before them. Accordingly, traditional media still plays a vital role, and can often influence purchases just as much, if not more so, than digital – even when the last action was taken online.
However, while you might not be able to learn everything from digital, it can still provide invaluable information–information previously unavailable to marketers. Which of multiple messages, for example, gets a higher click-through rate? What traffic sources yield the leads most likely to convert? What type of content generates the most interaction from your audience? All these things are eminently discoverable via digital media. Such insights might not tell you everything, but they provide opportunities that simply aren’t available via traditional media.
This was precisely the argument I made with the example of a CEO blissfully spending money on billboards while voicing his doubts about digital, given “how hard [the latter] is to measure.” Yes, it’s true that analytics aren’t always conclusive and that click-through rates can be misleading. However, compare that to the inadequacies of traditional media. What was the click-through rate on the last billboard you put up? The last radio spot you produced? Your last newspaper ad? Even if you correlate sales to ad spend, you’re making a lot of assumptions–more, it’s clear, than you have to make if you use digital media responsibly.
Yes, you should be looking for a definite return on your marketing dollars, and no, we haven’t yet perfected a way of knowing everything that goes into consumer decisions. However, the strategic use of marketing resources is increasingly dependent upon your skill in optimizing along the way. What makes digital superior in most cases is that the money you’ve already spent teaches you about how to make the next dollar go further. You might still have to make some inferences about what’s influencing customer purchases, but – if you’re smart about what you measure and realistic about your goals for any specific investment – you can eliminate some of the guesswork. And while that might seem like a small victory, it’s a considerable leap forward for your marketing budget.