Let's first agree that no one, no matter how sophisticated and nuanced their measurement technology, accurately measures search success. There is no ROI calculation, attribution model, or engagement map sophisticated enough to capture the totality of interactions between search, and other marketing channels and fully reveal the interplay and impact of each on customers' buying decisions. So we compromise. And in search, perhaps more than any other channel, we've come to agree that our compromise on measurement is pretty darn good. We've settled squarely on directly measured, Web-based response metrics (sales, leads, revenue, etc.) as the primary indicator of value. And these metrics have a profound influence on everything from our optimization decisions to segmentation and targeting to budgeting to internal and external resourcing against the search opportunity. To date, these metrics have served us well.
What we've seen in the last quarter of 2008, however, is that every metric, whether derived from search, banner media, offline advertising, or "other," is up for debate as marketers scrutinize their investments like never before. And while this may seem like a threat, it's likely the single biggest opportunity to come across the search marketer's desk in years. For the first time in a decade, marketers are intensely interested in revisiting their assumptions about ROI. Given this period of open-mindedness, there are three specific topics search marketers can and should exploit. All three will benefit the channel in the long run.
First and foremost, we should factor in value outside of the online order process. The low-hanging fruit here includes phone orders (still not tracked by many search marketers) and email sign ups (tracked, but seldom explicitly valued). Beyond that, we should develop a model for valuing search-driven interactions based on their contribution to sales outside of the digital channel. Multichannel retailers will be interested in understanding how search-driven traffic translated into in-store sales. Non-transactional marketers (CPG, pharmaceutical, etc.) will look for metrics beyond clicks and page views, in search of a more accurate measure how search-driven site interaction corresponds with purchase intent. We can answer these questions through a combination of qualitative and quantitative data (surveys, and site-side KPIs vetted against actual purchase behavior). This model should feed our search ROI analysis, not as a sole input, but as part of a whole.
Second, we should push incessantly for brand awareness, message association and brand favorability metrics as a factor in evaluating search marketing success. Search has profound impact on consumers' perceptions of brands. This has been proven, a dozen times or more, across many different categories. Yet search is seldom, if ever, accorded the same luxury as display media, television and print when it comes to "brand value." Search marketers should use the openness to new metrics in 2009 as an opportunity to right this wrong, and ensure marketers understand the strategic branding opportunities available in the search landscape. These, too, should be modeled and fed into search ROI analysis as part of a whole.
And third, we should quantify and include into our success metrics the opportunity costs of not participating in the search landscape, or segments therein. Admittedly, this is the fuzziest of the three areas of opportunity, but a real opportunity nonetheless. There is value in blocking competitors from certain keyword segments, and value for keeping cost pressures on those competitors for targeted keywords. This value may be secondary, or even tertiary, but it, too, can and should be quantified and factored into search ROI decisions.
The good news for search marketers, then, is through these measures there is a compelling case to be made that search is underreporting value and making erroneous budgeting and optimization decisions as a result. The audience for these message is receptive, and earnestly looking for better answers relating to measurement. The bad news is that our case will not be unique; every other channel, too, will make the argument they are undervalued, under-measured, and underinvested. We should be prepared for this, but not intimidated. In the worst case scenario, search has a better story to tell than most other channels. In the best case scenario, savvy marketers will use this as an opportunity to embark upon a more comprehensive, cross-channel approach to measurement and ROI attribution. In both cases, search marketers win. Happy holidays, and good luck to you if you take my advice and strive to redefine success in 2009.