Friday, 18 March 2011

Social media value attribution

Everybody’s talking about how social media is the new big thing. Yesterday it was the next big thing. According to Facebook, the next big thing is, well, unknown so who knows what tomorrow will bring. So we have a marketing world set alight by the potential of social media, queuing up to use it, setting up plans to get into social media. But there’s no real rationale. It’s being done because it looks like it is important. People live there, so our world has changed. But as for value - well, who knows? KPIs all seem to surround the number of fans and Likes, sentiment (no matter how vague this is) and hope. Accountability - attribution - is the elephant in the room.

I’ve grown up with digital. In 1994 I set up a digital agency, building communities around websites for brands like Snickers and Hewlett-Packard. We added channels as we went along - search engines, ads, interactive television and mobile. Around ten years ago we had become part of the world’s fourth biggest advertising network, and the digital world looked full of colour, sexy as hell, with big brands piling in to spend money on visitors, eyeballs and sales. Having sold out, we next built an agency around something brand new in the world of digital marketing: accountability. We wanted to prove that digital could have tangible, measurable and commercial value. So we got into eCRM big time.

Working with brands like Virgin, NSPCC and News International we started creating digitally-delivered campaigns built around individual customers. What we learned about them and from them we used to better engage them. We used insights derived from demography and behaviour to inform targeting strategies that delivered relevant content when it was most likely to work. We used segmentation principles originated by the direct mail companies and facilitated by the cheapest of media, email, to improve response rates and sales revenues. We used Recency, Frequency and Value to benchmark customer segments, applied campaigns bespoked to each segment’s needs, and measured the changes. We gave marketers what they wanted: proof that what they were doing produced specific financial returns.

Today this is what we do, still. Sure, the channels have changed. We now use mobile, SMS and email, but we also use websites. What was once called personalisation has been adapted; for McCain Foods we extended the eCRM strategy from email onto its site, so that visitors see content based on which segment they belong to and where they are in a planned nudge-based customer journey. We track individuals through their entire web experience, bringing behavioural data back into the eCRM programme so we can attribute the contribution their experience makes towards changes in their value. Taking an example, we know that by increasing engagement through the programme, one specific segment has increased its average purchase frequency by 3% a year - leading to an increase in sales of around £1million.

This level of attribution means a client can justify spending part of its valuable marketing budget on this eCRM activity. If the incremental revenue a programme generates, and in particular the incremental margin it generates, is greater than the cost of generating it, then it’s a no-brainer. Likewise, one would think that if you could prove that the incremental margin was less than the cost of generating it, you’d close down the programme very quickly indeed.

And yet, social media defies this superbly clean logic. Because you cannot cast attribution, because you can’t tell whether it’s a positive or negative ROI, the hope that it’s the next big thing and it will be worth it seems to justify investment in it. Where’s the return? I read a statistic the other day that some Facebook campaign had generated an ROI of 4:1 (actually, they said “400%!!”). I’d love to know what that means... at a guess, this company isn’t making 25% margin, and unless it’s making 25% plus, that “ROI” is actually a loss.

So this is where we found ourselves, running fantastic, highly auditable campaigns, leveraging customer data for all its worth, using email, mobile and the web, when this groundswell of social media marketing buzz started preoccupying marketing minds. So Underwired has developed a tool that allows us to make some connections. It allows us to create specific calls to action to customer segments, and watch precisely what they do in response.

By creating this tool we’ve finally addressed the elephant in the room. We’ve added the ability to score individuals according to what social actions they take in response to our engagement programmes. It means we can add an advocacy dimension to our demographic, behavioural and motivation-based segmentation, and this means we can identify people who have value to us as recruiters and word-spreaders. We can even attribute new customers to an individual’s referrals, which gives us real power to tap into social behaviour and account for the results. This is the new big thing.