OPINION26 August 2021

Removing ‘vanity’ metrics from marketing

Data analytics Innovations Media Mobile Opinion UK

It is time to sacrifice a bit of campaign reach for a lot of campaign certainty, argues Ian Gibbs.

Wooden block with smiley face under magnifying glass surrounded by other wooden blocks

Are we condemned to repeat the mistakes of generations past? When it comes to measuring marketing effectiveness is does sometimes feel that way.

When I started my career in media research more than 15 years ago, I was shown a pie chart. It was a very simple pie chart with just a tiny sliver highlighted to show what proportion of ads are typically clicked on - ‘0.01% click-through rate (CTR)’ said the chart title. But what about the impact of the other 99.99% who saw your ad but didn’t click?

A neat summary of the challenge of using a relatively meaningless digital vanity metric to measure campaign performance, but sadly a conversation that is as common today as it was over a decade ago. The problem was most recently highlighted in the Meaningful Marketing Measurement 2021 report produced by the Data & Marketing Association (DMA) and Data Stories Consulting.

The report features insight drawn from the newly created DMA Intelligent Marketing Databank, built on the foundations of more than 850 DMA awards entries. While the report offers insights into the drivers of marketing campaign effectiveness, of more relevance to the research, data and insight community is the analysis of the measurement of campaign effectiveness.

There were 167 methods of articulating campaign effectiveness identified across the 850 campaigns – in itself this is an issue if you work for an organisation that is trying to develop a common language around marketing effectiveness.

Of greater concern, is that just 60% of the measures identified have real value to marketers and measurement practitioners. They are concerned with response measures such as sales, conversions and acquisitions; brand measures such as awareness, consideration and purchase intent; and broader business effects such as profitability, market share growth and shareholder value.

The remaining 40% sadly tell us nothing of true campaign impact. They relate to media planning metrics such as reach, frequency and impression delivery, and digital vanity metrics such as clicks, likes and shares.

Media planning metrics have considerable value at the start of the planning process and are of course useful metrics in the media auditing process – giving marketers some assurance that they actually got what they paid for. As measures of campaign impact they are insufficient.

Digital vanity metrics might have some value as measures by which display, social and video campaigns can be optimised while in-flight. But who cares if 10 million people shared your ad if it can’t be linked back to some sort of positive commercial outcome for your organisation?

The problem tends to be worse for brand campaigns than direct response campaigns. More than half of brand campaigns are measured using meaningless campaign delivery and digital vanity metrics, compared with nearly 30% of direct response campaigns. Arguably, the use of a CTR to measure the emotional reaction that brand campaigns attempt to trigger in consumers does more disservice to brand building efforts than it does to direct response, yet still the problem persists.

Talking to peers in the industry, there are a number of drivers of this tendency towards mismeasurement:

  • Digital ads have produced a ubiquity of campaign data. Marketers are measuring performance using the most easily available data, rather than the most relevant data.
  • The effort required to access the most relevant data isn’t seen to be worth the reward. Time-poor marketers and measurement practitioners are gripped by inertia and it is simply easier to continue doing what has always been done.
  • Measuring brand campaigns is seen as an expensive and time consuming effort in an industry overly-obsessed with delivering short-term results.
  • Perhaps some marketers simply don’t want this level of scrutiny on their campaigns? Perhaps it’s easier to paint the most flattering picture of campaign performance when there aren’t robust data sources around to call it in to question?

This may all sound a bit doom and gloom, but it shouldn’t be. The mismeasurement of campaign effectiveness should be seen as an opportunity. We shouldn’t be afraid of the scrutiny measurement places on campaign performance.

The most successful measurement frameworks plug campaign effectiveness data into a continuous feedback loop of ongoing marketing performance improvement, helping marketers to better sing about their achievements rather than be afraid of their failures.

The research, data and insight industry needs to better equip marketers with the tools they need to measure campaign effectiveness at all budget levels, and challenge the perceptions that robust measurement is out of reach for all but the largest brands. At the same time, marketers must become comfortable with assigning some of their campaign budget to robust measurement programs. Sacrificing a bit of reach for a lot of certainty is a trade-off worth making.

Media owners and platforms, who are guilty of providing meaningless campaign delivery and digital vanity metrics in post-campaign reports, also need to sharpen up their measurement offerings to marketers. It’s not too far-fetched to link back an obsession with CTRs to nearly everything that’s wrong with the digital ecosystem, from ad fraud and the explosion of low quality click-bait style content, to the lack of sustainable ad models for premium digital publishers.

Get measurement right, and a lot of positive benefits for the entire marketing ecosystem should follow. The aspiration has to be to show consumers fewer, better ads.

That aspiration all starts with good measurement. Let’s get rid of the 40% of meaningless campaign delivery and digital vanity metrics in our measurement plans and focus on what really matters.

Ian Gibbs is founder of Data Stories Consulting

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