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If I Can Learn Digital Attribution, So Can You!

Given that I’ve been covering it for the past 15 years, I can't believe how little I know about marketing. I throw around jargon like confetti, but I've had only had a vague — and that's being generous — idea about things like digital KPIs, multi-channel marketing, and how to measure ROI on a social campaign. I’m still basically clueless, but now, at least I have half a clue. It’s a start.

The bad news is that some marketers out there, probably at major companies, know as little about digital marketing as I do. Michael Robson, general manager of enterprise at New York-based education company General Assembly, pointed out to me that that while 50% of marketers say marketing has changed, fewer are confident about how they are adapting to it. “There's a huge impetus to change and people are feeling powerless,” he says, adding that it is GA's business to solve that by accelerating the learning-curve process from C-suite to managers. 

General Assembly, which has 13 locations in markets like Austin, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, London, and New York, develops and programs technology, business and design education for consumers and corporations. Robson says the enterprise side is about boosting marketers’ and executives’ velocity over the social and digital-marketing learning curve, and keeping them up to speed on that protean landscape. 

“We are a transition organization to help companies be much more digital, in everything from recruitment, to performance, management and up-skilling.” Clients include American Express, GE, NYSE, The New York Times Company, PepsiCo and 60 or so Fortune 500 companies. The company says it has put some 12,000 marketers, digital managers, CMOs and other C-suite execs through in-person classes, and 3,000 through online courses.

One challenge at companies, one that helps fuel GA revenue, is an epidemic case of communication meltdown between those who make and pay for strategy and those who execute on it: while a company may have very savvy digital managers, everyone else,  including those in the C-suite, need to get with the digital program for anything good to come of it. “The most important thing for companies is to have a common way to talk about why change is important; how to test [digital initiatives]; and as an individual ‘how do I drive change?’” says Robson.

So, to drive change in my own digital skill set, I decided to put the program to the test. This week, for selfish reasons having to do with the fact that I will never read a book about digital marketing as long as I live, I decided to stop by GA and try a course for myself, and maybe actually learn something. 

They gave me a conference room, and I dug into several online modules in GA’s Essentials of Digital Marketing program. These are the equivalent of survey courses: Foundations - The Digital Marketing and Media Landscape; Mobile and Tablet - Understanding Mobile Devices; Social and Content - The Social Campaign; and Multichannel Marketing - Measuring ROI with Attribution Modeling.

The modules are about 15 minutes long. Robson says short is good because marketers are crunched for time, and (I can attest to this) 15 minutes is a tolerable number. Though online courses can require more concentration than a modern human can muster, I found it all remarkably easy to digest, And it was fun, because it was simple, clear and the units were a mix of interactive slides and video content featuring experts in their respective fields, speaking in very comprehensible, comprehensive terms. You go at your own speed and skip what you want to skip. Then you get a five- or six-question quiz afterward. My scores were so-so, but then I barely passed my SATs. I have the retention of a salad spinner.  

One unit on mobile attribution got into fairly complex stuff like how to read query variables on URLs to track data on user interactions. As a marketer, you can either get these things into your head, or forever relegate yourself to having vague conversations about click-throughs and CPMs. As the digital-attribution module I experienced pointed out (and I missed the quiz question on this), digital allows you to make changes, but you can't do it if your marketing executive doesn't understand what the data means and how it’s derived.   

Some things never change, though. The quality of a slide means little without a good teacher. Robson says GA often taps subject-matter experts to teach its online courses. The expert in the social media module Kelley O. Williams, cofounder of STEM education firm The Honey Bee Company, and former AVP of social media at J.P. Morgan Chase was affable, entertaining, and also had a strong opinion. I'd never heard the term “vanity metrics” before. That would be “likes, for example, as in, “We have five million likes on our brand page.” Which is something I have heard. About five million times. A lot of it is common sense, sure, but a little common sense nicely-served is worth a lot of arcane nonsense served from a fire hose in really small font.

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