The explosion of data and media channels in recent years has occurred against a backdrop of economic uncertainty and financial belt-tightening. Both trends make it difficult for marketers to prove their effectiveness and show how they generate returns for their businesses.
Marketers that can demonstrate their effectiveness stand a better chance of thriving in their career and of ensuring that their role is respected in the boardroom, but this is not easy in an increasingly diffuse media landscape.
Marketing Week’s roundtable, sponsored by Royal Mail MarketReach, discussed some of the core issues around marketing effectiveness, yielding plenty of interesting takeaways for marketers seeking to better manage and measure their work.
Search for a single customer view
Drawing together different attribution channels was a common challenge cited by the roundtable participants. Anne Gowan, head of subscriptions at Guardian News & Media, explained that the company looks at a wide range of measures to understand its marketing effectiveness, including reach, conversion, customer acquisition, retention and engagement.
The media group is in the process of pooling all its data on one internal platform to create a “single customer view” as it looks to tackle a shortfall in digital advertising revenues by converting more readers into subscribers or paid-up members.
We all have five-year plans and three-year plans but everything is changing on an almost quarterly basis.
Ed Aspel, Cancer Research UK
“How is the customer journey being played out across all the different channels? How many stages are there in the decision making process? It will be different for different groups of people. So [the challenge is] how we aggregate that data so that we can then communicate and convert more effectively,” she said.
Ed Aspel, executive director of fundraising and marketing at Cancer Research UK, agreed that creating a single customer view is challenging given the multiple and varied touchpoints through which people hear about and interact with the charity, including online, direct mail, shops and events.
Although the organisation uses econometric modelling to understand the effectiveness of its brand advertising and fundraising efforts, Aspel is also wary of looking at too many metrics.
He said: “We’re very good at understanding the funnel in terms of acquisition, pretty good [at understanding] those who have a relationship with us through direct debit or whatever – but that becomes a distraction from the depth of relationship that you have.”
Meanwhile Jonathan Harman, managing director at Royal Mail MarketReach, argued that it is important to bring together online and offline data in order to understand how different channels work together. He referred to the Royal Mail product Mailmark, which uses barcode technology to allow advertising mailers to track the progress of their mail and better plan follow-up communications.
“We’re working on attribution, because it’s important that we understand not just the performance of individual channels but the combinations of channels. We know nothing works in isolation,” said Harman.
Brands need to make a call on what the right measurement is for each area, he added, “particularly when you are judging investment spends across very different businesses”.
Short versus long term
In addition to attribution challenges, the participants discussed the difference between short-term marketing effectiveness and longer-term brand goals. Philip Mehl, who recently left his role as head of marketing in EMEA for HSBC, suggested that the explosion of data and measurement tools had led to greater emphasis on short-term returns.
“It has fed the monster of the archetypal chief financial officer because they can see how [marketing activity] is measuring,” he said. “That’s partly what may have put more downward pressure on marketing because it’s about delivering short-term results once you have proven it.”
Mehl added that a company’s willingness to invest in long-term marketing effectiveness, such as brand campaigns that take time to yield a financial return, depends on the outlook of the CEO.
He said: “There are CEOs that want to create a long-term legacy – they know they have inherited something and they want to pass it on, and they’re prepared to invest in things that can be measured but don’t deliver the immediate sales response.”
BBC Worldwide head of brand and global campaigns Tia McPhee noted that the broadcaster is shifting towards shorter-term effectiveness measures as a result of financial pressures. She explained that BBC Worldwide relaunched its international channels a few years ago as part of “a long-term brand play” but that the organisation’s strategic outlook had shifted more recently.
She said there is more financial pressure to deliver as big a return as possible in order to fund content, so there has been a move back to more tactical plays. “So rather than brand building activities you revert back to things that are instantly measurable – you push the tactical and the programme-led, where you can prove where that activity led to [a specific] increase in audience size.”
Gowan at Guardian News & Media also pointed to the need to prove short-term effectiveness as a way of dealing with wider industry pressures. Newspaper businesses often scrap longer-term targets as they look to adapt their business models to fast-moving digital developments and generate new revenue sources. Aspel explained: “The environment is changing so quickly that we all have five-year plans that are probably a set of numbers, and we all have three-year plans that are more substantial, but actually everything is changing on an almost quarterly basis so we have to review everything against those plans.”
You cannot measure everything
In light of these financial pressures, marketers were urged to use their instincts and not attempt to measure too much. Aspel at Cancer Research UK said the charity is using digital channels to test low-cost fundraising initiatives and adapt its campaigns at speed.
“We’re finding that a lot of the digital stuff is adding pace and flex to what we do, so rather than worrying about getting it right first time, if it doesn’t work well we will adapt and change it,” he noted.
“We launched one fundraising idea that we were able to put up in about seven hours – it didn’t work but because it didn’t cost much it wasn’t a risk. Our ability to innovate and change has become much faster, which is attractive.”
Aspel added that the preoccupation of the charity sector in trying to measure the outcome of all investments had led some donors to feel alienated or bombarded with communications. As an alternative approach, he suggested that showing thought leadership could have a huge effect, but a difficult one to quantify.
“We do measurement on our fundraising activity but that’s such a small part of the overall message that’s out there,” he said. “The number of times we are in the press or on TV to comment on a new drug or breakthrough has a large impact on people’s trust in our ability to meet our promise of beating cancer.”
Mehl agreed that brands should experiment and test new ideas, but argued that large investments require some form of effectiveness measure. “If there are small ideas and it doesn’t cost a great deal, I wouldn’t worry about measuring it – just do it,” he said.
“As marketers, we have to use intuition and have empathy for customers. If there is something that does require a significant time or budget investment, you must be able to measure it. [In those cases you have to say] if we can’t measure it, we shouldn’t be doing it because it’s not going to scratch the surface.”
Harman at MarketReach suggested that brands should look at data in context to understand effectiveness. Within MarketReach this includes investing in research and insight to better understand how people interact with direct mail once it has been delivered.
“We’re looking at reach and frequency metrics and starting now to be able to prove that mail gets passed on approximately 20% of the time,” he said. “We know that people go back to mail six times on average so we can start to prove that out and we’re looking at ways of getting that data into the market.”
Role of content
The panel also discussed how new forms of content are helping marketers to prove effectiveness. McPhee at BBC Worldwide explained this could involve looking at the extent to which a piece of content is shared across social media. One of BBC Worldwide’s most successful executions was a trailer video for Planet Earth 2 that appeared on Facebook and achieved nearly one billion views.
“That programme has gone on to be the highest-rated documentary in the UK,” said McPhee. “How do you relate those things? Do you just say it was a stand-out programme so people would have come to it anyway?”
She revealed there was “a lot of science” that went into the production of the video. This included ensuring that the start of the clip was immediately engaging so that it would grab attention as it autoplayed while people scrolled down their social media feeds. McPhee believes the strength of this execution will encourage more investment in similar marketing activity in the future.
“How do you unpick [the science] and the success of that piece from the fact it was beautiful and amazing content in and of itself?” said McPhee. “It’s a really difficult thing to argue. We believe we made a difference and that one example will be used to justify a whole range of activity.”
The Guardian tries to use marketing content sparingly, according to Gowan. Although
the newspaper has expanded the reach of its editorial content by establishing a large following on social media, it takes a more targeted approach with its commercial content.
This includes posting messages to encourage people to sign up for Guardian membership alongside particularly significant editorial stories such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US President. In the week following Trump’s victory, the Guardian saw a surge in membership.
“Our audiences are very cynical about too much overt marketing, so we find that the occasional drop [of marketing content] is enough,” Gowan added.
Improving agency relationships
The panel concluded the roundtable by discussing new ways of working and how they could boost marketing effectiveness. Aspel at Cancer Research UK questioned whether hiring agencies to produce marketing content and social activity is the right way forward in the modern, digital age. “It feels like a cumbersome, expensive way of doing it – isn’t that the basic skill of somebody [internally] at a reasonably junior level in marketing?” he said.
However, Mehl suggested that many brands continue to view agencies as a source of distinctive creative ideas. He also criticised brands for burdening agencies with increasing cost pressures, thereby reducing the quality and effectiveness of their work.
“We got procurement in to drive down cost, which meant agencies had to overwork people,” he said. “The creative quality of the product has dropped because clients pay less – it’s so difficult to get growth when you keep on driving costs down so we’re just going down to the lowest common denominator. The clients drove that, not the agencies.”
Mehl urged brands to integrate their own operations internally in order to become more targeted in their communications and make optimum use of data.
“Marketing used to be a creative challenge but it’s a data challenge now,” he added. “Where you have separate departments of technology, data warehouse and marketing, they need to be integrated because insight and intel on who you are targeting is going to be more important than ever before. It’s going to be so hard to differentiate or be distinctive in the content, so it’s more about the smartness of the approach.”
Harman at MarketReach questioned whether marketers have become more risk-averse as a result of financial pressures and structural changes to the way they work. “With zero-based budgeting, which seems on the whole to be fairly sensible, it’s more difficult to say ‘I’ve got 5% of my budget that I’ll use for experimentation’,” he said. “[Instead,] you say ‘no, that 5% will go somewhere else where I can guarantee a return’.”
Ultimately, Harman called on marketers to continue to innovate and find new ways of proving their effectiveness, rather than settling for tried-and-tested methods. “I would hope that we would raise our game in measurement rather than retreat back into what we can measure, because the pressure to prove return on investment is not going anywhere,” he said.