Why Marketers Do Things They Can’t Measure

Brand Aware” explores the data-driven digital ad ecosystem from the marketer’s point of view.

Today’s column is written by Paolo Provinciali, head of US Media at Anheuser-Busch InBev.

With increasing amounts of data available in our profession, being a data-driven marketer has become a badge of honor in the industry. Yet, in spite of celebrating a data-driven approach, the advertising industry still spends an enormous amount of money and resources on efforts with a limited degree of measurability.

These efforts are not undertaken by unsophisticated marketers, either – some of the most advanced and well-respected companies in the world spend a sizable amount on these immeasurable endeavors:

Brand building: Nike is arguably the most celebrated brand these days. Its Colin Kaepernick campaign and Justin Gallegos endorsement have surely registered a movement in short-term metrics and polarized the audience in a very deliberate manner, but the true return on the brand – its customer base and, ultimately, revenue – won’t be evident for another year or two.

So, here’s the first paradox: What many (data-driven) professionals would consider a genius marketing move cannot yet be quantified through tangible and unequivocal metrics.

Earned media: One of the leading indicators used to argue possible long-term brand success is earned media and positive sentiment analysis. This is normal; any brand relishes the opportunity to deploy a well-orchestrated activation that is picked up, re-shared and celebrated by others. External validation is important for individuals, as well as professionals.

Unfortunately, given the lack of a direct relationship between these metrics and sales, the value of earned media in a data-driven world is typically estimated by calculating the monetary value of the free impressions earned by the brand. Problematically, this method moves the conversation from value generation to cost savings.

Given that marketing organizations struggle with positioning budgets as an investment, rather than cost, this approach can be risky.

Building a digital reputation: Creating high-ranking content on platforms that users trust to inform their purchasing decisions – SEO, YouTube or even ranking as an “Amazon Choice” – is another strategy that has helped many disruptor brands displace well-established players. But successfully leveraging organic digital channels requires a long upfront investment without guaranteed results. Even though there are ways to optimize efforts, the math is fuzzy at best and therefore requires a “spray-and-pray” approach that will hopefully lead to a tidal effect on sales.

Advertising behind the walled gardens: Something is scientifically “true” when multiple experiments conducted by different observers confirm the same results. Currently, the three biggest digital advertising networks in the world – Facebook, Google and Amazon – only allow a limited amount of data to exit their platforms and receive third-party validation. They also don’t always provide comparable metrics to more established channels such as TV.

While I don’t question the methodology or integrity of these companies, the fact that findings and conclusions cannot be compared in a holistic manner by multiple sources implies that the digital advertising industry spends most of its money on things that don’t offer absolute scientific validity.

So, if we take so much pride in being data-driven marketers, why do we spend so many resources on things that don’t allow for a perfect measurement system?

In this age, information overload changes the competitive dynamics; what’s measurable and known is just the baseline for marketing participation, and moving beyond the certainty of fully proven metrics becomes a necessity. In a time where we can deploy deep-learning algorithms to maximize the desired outcome of incredibly complex scenarios at unprecedented speed and scale, being data-driven is a minimum requirement, not a badge of honor.

Every marketer has to balance short-term sales results with long-term consumer relationships, and the best way to find an equilibrium is to be methodical in the way we analyze data and signals to establish new principles that will guide our investment decisions.

But this is also the reason why the activities mentioned above are necessary for the success of every brand and company. No matter how rigorous in our analysis and structured in our decision-making process we aim to be, our best chance to outpace and outmaneuver the competition is to venture into high-risk and high-reward tactics that don’t offer the comfort of fully proven metrics.

Even if marketing is becoming a better mix of art and science, a lot is still unknown. Yet, one thing is clear: We can’t expect a breakthrough if we only stick with what we know and can measure.

Follow AB InBev (@abinbev) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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