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Successes You Can’t Measure

You can measure an amazing diversity of post-click behaviors, and it’s particularly easy to link the behavior of site visitors coming in from paid search listings to online conversions. However, there are a bevy of successes that are occurring as a result of your paid search campaign that you can’t measure easily. Often these conversions are happening online and simply can’t be tracked; other times conversions are happening through other channels and similarly cannot be tracked.

Lost Cookies

Cookies are small data files, passed from a web server to a browser, that reside on the user’s hard drive. Online publishers use them for purposes related to making it easier for users to access their sites; for example, the ability of a site to “remember” users, saving them from the chore of entering their usernames and passwords each time they go to the site. Marketers use cookies to track users’ behavior. Cookies are also used heavily by advertisers and marketers within web analytics and campaign management software to “close the loop” in respect to understanding which ad banner impressions (when a banner is served on a specific page that is being read by a visitor) and subsequent clicks resulted in sales, registrations, or other positive actions. However, due to cookie loss (which happens when users delete cookies, often at the end of a browsing session, daily, weekly, or monthly due to a software program installed to do so), no tracking system that uses them is perfect, nor does it need to be. As long as the majority of cookies are active and usable, these cookies act as a representative (you hope) sample of the overall visitors received. However, in order to continue to use the systems that rely on cookies as data sources, you need to accurately predict what percentage of cookies you are missing.

A recent Jupiter Research report found that “as many as 39 percent of online users may be deleting cookies from their primary computers every month, undermining the usefulness of cookie-based measurement and leaving many site operators flying blind.” Similarly a June 2007 report from comScore stated “approximately 31 percent of U.S. computer users clear their first-party cookies in a month (or have them cleared by automated software), with an average of 4.7 different cookies being observed for the same site within this user segment.”

The client data my team has observed indicates that the cookie loss problem may not be quite as dire as all that... yet. But the trend toward blocked or deleted cookies is clearly increasing. Although Microsoft’s recent browser releases and Google’s Chrome browser all treat cookies differently, it is clear that the general trend is in the direction of making cookie deletion easier for users to accomplish.

The proliferation of spyware and unwanted adware has resulted in a surge in popularity of spyware removal programs. Many of these programs also remove third-party cookies. Additionally, many Internet security software packages include cookie blocking, cookie removal, or cookie management features that are turned on by default.

Without third-party cookies, many industry technologies would have to rely on alternative means to measure ad performance. Cookies, like an email or a postal address, or a customer phone number, can be used by marketers wisely or poorly. Instead of using cookies to enhance the user experience with highly targeted advertising, some have instead focused on short-term gains by collecting personally identifiable information in a cookie, which has caused some to cross the line between justifiable tracking and privacy-intrusive monitoring.

One more word on cookies: When you look at data on measured conversions, be sure to factor in the reality that cookies may have been blocked or deleted, making the true reckoning of ROI and conversions much more difficult than your cookie-based data would suggest. Also be aware that an apparent loss of cookies may in fact represent another kind of user behavior. For example, cookies reside on specific computers and even in specific browsers (IE, Firefox, Chrome, and so on). Therefore a searcher moving from a work computer to a home computer in the midst of researching a purchase manifests itself like a deleted cookie if this searcher converts to a sale at home (on a different computer) after having interacted with your PPC search listings while at work.

Long Lag Times

A related issue to the loss or deletion of cookies is the phenomenon of long lag times occurring between the search visit and the conversion. The standard cookie expiration length is typically 30 days. When combined with random timing of cookie deletion, longer lag times between search and conversion also result in less accurate data.

Consequently, some of the positive impact of your search campaign may occur so far out in the time domain as to make it unlikely that you’ll be able to see any conversion data at all. Plus, the data you do see will represent only a fraction of the true value of the true impact of your campaign due not only to data leakage, but also the less measureable influence on a consumer to increase the likelihood of an eventual sale.

Offline Conversions

As mentioned in Chapter 3, “Essential Pre-Planning,” online and offline marketers often make decisions in a silo, failing to look at the possibility that some data isn’t in front of them. But more and more CMOs (chief marketing officers) and marketing vice presidents are beginning to see the folly of separating business units that are perceived or advertised under the same brand. Clearly, consumers see the brand as one entity, even if profit and loss statements and marketing budgets are maintained separately within the organization.

Being able to look beyond traditional “silos” is vital because consumers are influenced by a wide array of different marketing channels. Study after study shows consumers use the Internet for research when making buying decisions. comScore has conducted studies for Yahoo, Google, and Performics/DoubleClick, which track the relationship between search and buying behavior. comScore’s March 2006 study, conducted for Google, shows that 63 percent of those who purchased an item directly related to their search query completed the purchase offline, with just 37 percent making that purchase online.

It becomes even more fascinating when studies look at offline sales and estimate the importance of online site resources and information. A Shop.org study conducted by Forrester found that 22 percent of offline sales are influenced by the web. This figure represents nearly a quarter of total offline sales, and it will undoubtedly go up due to generational effects (as more and more young consumers emerge who have never known a world in which information wasn’t instantly available at their fingertips) and the improved quality and availability of online information.

Clearly, the percentage of your customers who rely on online information before making offline purchase decisions will vary by industry geography and demographic target market. Multichannel merchants, which market goods and services to consumers through a multitude of channels that may include both online and offline stores or catalogs, must pay particular attention to the interaction of online information consumption and offline purchasing behavior. Each multichannel merchant must make its own decisions on how to treat these interaction effects. The most important question for most marketers is whether the information consumers find online influences them to select one product over another, choose one brand over another, or select the retail store to purchase from as a result of such exposure.

If the level of influence on these kinds of decisions is high, the web, and search in particular, becomes critical for not only the retailer but also the manufacturer. The manufacturer may not be able to rely on the retailers to do their selling for it and may need to dramatically increase its online presence while dealing with channel conflict issues, such as those that may occur when an identical good or service is offered at a variety of different distribution outlets with different terms of purchase.

Of course, data may show that even though consumers spend time online researching products and purchases, they don’t change their behavior based on these interactions. In effect, the web may just remove friction from the product-researching process, allowing consumers to replace store visits by discussions with friends, magazine reviews, and library visits. I’m willing to bet, however, that brand, product, and store decisions are influenced by online behavior.

There are even more critical, immediate reasons why you should care if your business unit measures success based purely on measurable online conversions. You may have a problem, regardless of whether your online-only focus is because the business has siloed you into a separate unit or because your firm is currently an Internet “pure play” whose distribution of goods and services occurs exclusively online. If your competitors aren’t siloed and have determined how to better measure or estimate the true impact of search on offline conversions, you’ll get your you-know-what kicked, because your competitors’ overall conversion rate may be dramatically higher than yours, enabling them to outbid you on key business-driving terms. If this is the case, your only recourse is to either bid irrationally, which may get you fired (or at least get you into trouble), or become such a brilliant merchandiser that your landing pages convert better online than those of your competitors do.

If you don’t have serious conversion, operational cost savings, and margin advantages over your competitors, and they use a holistic view of online and offline conversion, as opposed to your myopic view that online-only conversions are the only thing that matters, you may be completely priced out of the positions that generate real volume for your business.

If you’re a multichannel marketer and are either active at the corporate level or have been empowered by C-level executives (those with “C” in their title, indicating “chief-level”) to manage search based on its true value to the business (net search profit), several options are available to strengthen your case that a more holistic view of media interaction effects is warranted. One commercially available option is comScore. Its new product, qSearch Retail, extends conversion tracking among comScore panelists (of which there are approximately 2 million people who have consented to have their online behavior monitored as part of a panel) to offline purchase behavior. With comScore data, you can gain a powerful understanding of how search and online behavior translates into offline purchases. comScore won’t use its full online panel size for offline purchase tracking; instead, it’s building smaller panels, based on specific recruited panel member behavior, particularly for the qSearch Retail product. Panelists will then be categorized by industry vertically (in cases in which they searched for keywords that relate to a category), making it easy for marketers to gain additional insight into their offline purchase behaviors.

You don’t necessarily need comScore, however, to answer some key questions about the link between online search behavior and offline purchases. Multichannel merchants with catalogs have faced similar issues for years. Some of the catalog industry’s best practices can be adapted for use in the online world, including:

  • Customer tagging: Look at purchases, then marry the online cookie with the offline customer number or credit card data. Being able to make such a correlation provides positive proof of the influence of your online marketing campaign. The same consumer may shop through several channels.
  • Offer codes: Unique offer codes can be provided for searchers to redeem via phone or in stores. Doing so will allow you to measure your online campaign’s effectiveness beyond the online checkout process. Armed with that information you can focus on the keywords and engines that deliver phone sales as well as online sales.
  • Unique pricing: Unique online pricing can also become a tracking code of its own, so when a person requests that price, it will be obvious that they must have seen the search landing page.
  • Trackable phone numbers: Phone sales can be routed through a tracking system similar to the VoiceXML systems built specifically for the tracking of phone calls without use of coupon codes and often deployed as part of pay-per-call systems. This method is expensive but may be suitable for expensive or complex purchases where the cost of tracking can be high due to the high value of the sale and the high cost of the search clicks.
  • In-store surveys: Survey your customers to gain better insight into how they use online media whether they searched for information on the products they are buying in-store and how online media influences their offline purchasing behavior.
  • Anecdotal data: Ask your sales associates if people show up with printouts from the website or newspaper or other sources.

In the future, lines between online and offline purchasing behavior will blur even more. The closer that your search campaign strategy reflects your true search profit, the more confident you can be about that campaign driving maximum organizational profit.

Passionistas, Influencers, and Buzz

Who is your office geek considered most knowledgeable on technology products? My guess is that the office geek is an influencer—someone whose expert opinion is valued by his peers, especially in regard to purchasing recommendations—to many people in the office making technology purchase decisions (both corporate and personal). Search advertising reaches that influencer, and clearly no cookies set on his or her computer will be triggered in a shopping cart tracking model. The influencer’s word of mouth may influence more than one purchase, and search results and the resulting time spent on your site may have influenced the influencer.

Sometimes the influencer is also highly passionate about a specific subject. In that case, many marketers prefer to call those people passionistas, who consume more content than the rest but also create content on sites that allow for contributions and comments.

It’s highly likely that search and your site can influence influencers who create buzz among their friends, associates, and relatives. As a matter of fact, similar metrics (some call them micro conversions, I think of them as engagement factors) may identify both likely direct purchasers as well as influencers. For example, I’d be willing to bet that influencers have a higher than average thirst for information. So, an engagement metric (watching how many pages visitors see or how long they stay on the site) combined with your standard conversion metrics may be just perfect. If you get an influencer to read a lot about your product and stay on-site engaged with your brand and your message, you may have positively influenced the influencer.

Duncan Watts, a Columbia University sociology professor on sabbatical to work at Yahoo, takes the opposite approach and suggests that, “A rare bunch of cool people just don’t have that power. And when you test the way marketers say the world works, it falls apart. There’s no there there.” Instead, he argues that the most important factor is to make your content easy to share to create a buzz about it. He debunks all the influencer research saying that on any particular topic anyone can be an influencer—you just need to get your message right. The irony of course is that Duncan’s new employer, Yahoo, was the co-sponsor of the research regarding passionistas.

Either way, a lousy, uninteresting message isn’t going viral, even between best friends. That brings us back to testing and perhaps creativity, something search marketers don’t like to think about. However if you are paying thousands of dollars to get visitors to your site, including potential influencers, you may as well engage them.

Regardless of whether you are going to try to influence either a random influencer (as Duncan Watts would have you believe the buzz created by word of mouth spreads) or you believe that there are magic influencers and passionistas out there, you need to get everyone you can excited about your message.

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