Commentary

Zorki's Return

Every three weeks or so I go on hiatus from writing this column. The last week I took off was March 22, and I was offended by what ran in this space then. "The CPA Wave is Coming" by Glenn Meyers read like a helping hand dragging publishers onto a beach just before a tidal wave.

I think CPA is a four-letter word used by advertisers and their agencies to scold "us" like children so they don't have to look at their own failures. The issue I have with CPA is the "action" measured. There are an infinite amount of reactions to an ad message, so restricting measurement to a single one feels flawed. Advertisers and their agencies love to shorten the rate between ad exposure and actions taken, overlooking the fact that consumers don't go from zero to purchase. They take steps along the way guided by feelings developed for a brand's product over time. How do you account for increments of emotional connections when dividing the cost paid for an ad by just one of many steps?

The timing of Glenn's column struck my self-indulgent sense of irony. I took that week off to play the fantasy role of music manager for a dear friend and talented singer songwriter named Zorki (yes, his real name.). In this role, I put on the shoes of a client, purchasing a half-page black-and-white print ad from my client, the Onion, to run in its New York City edition on consecutive weeks leading up to the "gig" I booked.

The good eggs at theOnion were nice enough to run the ads at a reduced rate, but nonetheless, I paid a price high enough to lose a breath. In addition to the print ads, we sent emails to Zorki's own list and used the functions on MySpace to alert those within a five-mile radius of the venue.

The show was a total bust. Zorki drove 13 hours from his home in North Carolina, to play in front of 13 people. I had to pay a penalty to the club for not delivering the minimum number of people they require a two-drink minimum from, and Zorki and his two band members split the 65 bucks we made at the door.

Of the 13 people in attendance, I personally invited six of them -- including the girl who cuts my hair, who, thankfully, brought two friends who appeared to have passed their two-drink minimum well before they sat down. That leaves five people I didn't know and later learned came to the show based on the ad in theOnion. My cost per acquisition (CPA) was through the roof. And yet the ad was a huge success. Let me explain.

For starters, the ad looked great, and when Zorki saw it, his confidence grew from seeing his name in a published property. Secondly, three of the Onion readers who were from Scotland loved the music so much they insisted on paying for the free CDs we were giving away. They literally asked Zorki and me after the show if we were planning to tour Scotland; if so, they promised to tell all their friends.

Zorki was so excited despite the poor turnout, he drove his elevated confidence back home and emailed his newest song to a radio station in Williamsburg, Va. that had originally aired one of his songs last spring. The music director responded immediately, telling him they loved the new tune and planned to feature it on the air -- playing it three times in one day.

Was Zorki's confidence a reaction to seeing his ad in the paper and hearing the feedback from theOnion readers -- and if so, how do I calculate that into the return on my investment? What if Zorki is heard on the radio by a record executive and is signed to a recording deal? My assertion is that you can't accurately measure ROI because an ad never really stops working.

Post-mortem after the show that night, instead of critiquing theOnion's performance, or that of MySpace, we looked at our own. The venue choice was a poor one. Our management of Zorki's email list was sub-par, and we planned the gig on a Thursday night during the NCAA tournament -- all contributing to the poor turnout.

Our biggest lesson learned is that people are busy. It's insane to think an ad or an email announcing a desired action is going to make them any less busy. So we arrived at a solution. Next time, we are going to ask his fans on his email list and MySpace page when they want Zorki to play and then book the gig.

CPA metrics tell only part of a story written to protect those who develop, create and place ads from scrutiny, and the abundance of supply induces publishers to buy into this responsibility. As publishers, you need to return ROI metrics back to the client and their agency -- and if they ask why, just tell them it didn't fit.

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