Big ideas, smaller audiences, and too many (or the wrong) metrics

John Battelle's Conversational Marketing Summit, which debuted last fall with much acclaim in a more intimate setting in San Francisco, faced a challenging task with its second edition last week in New York.

Tim Leberecht
Tim Leberecht is Frog Design's chief marketing officer. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET.
Tim Leberecht
7 min read
Insights from the Conversational Marketing Summit

John Battelle's Conversational Marketing Summit, which debuted last fall with much acclaim in a more intimate setting in San Francisco, faced a challenging task with its second edition last week in New York.

For starters, the speaker lineup was impressive, but two of the most important players of the social media Web were noticeably absent: Facebook (which, to be fair, took part last year) and Twitter. Yes, where was Twitter, the epitome of online conversations? Or at least another micro-blogging service?

Additionally, and more crucially, the program had to deal with what business lingo calls a "good problem:" the summit last fall had done such an excellent job establishing and exhaustively addressing the topic that it was hard for the NY program to offer new insights. Sure, the trend toward and the need for conversational media have continued and amplified. So has the emergence of the distributed Internet, or in Battelle's words: "To keep building our brands, we have to go to where the audience has gone." And the audience has gone to conversational media, as traffic data suggests, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.

The most successful new online brands are indeed conversational: Blogging service Wordpress, for example, experienced a whopping 202 percent traffic growth since last year, YouTube is up by 80 percent, Wikipedia by 28 percent, Facebook by 72 percent, and Flickr by nearly 86 percent. Sites with tools, services, and platforms that enable conversations to thrive are thriving themselves while the traffic to traditional properties (aka portals) stagnates or shrinks.

"Too many advertisers buy impressions instead of making impressions," Matt Freeman of GoFish remarked. Despite all the momentum that conversational media enjoys, as far as marketers' best practices and tools are concerned, not so much has actually changed since the last CM Summit. And some of the panels seemed to artificially prolong a conversation that had already ended last fall.

B2B = B2C²
Yet it was still an excellent program that Battelle and team put together. Focusing on the role of conversational media in building brands, the summit set out to find the "online analogs to the executions we so love in magazines and television."

Beth Comstock, chief marketing officer of General Electric, was well-suited to provide answers, for she represents an old, venerable brand (the "Hillary Clinton of brands," as someone in the audience framed it) that is successfully adapting to the new branding paradigms on the web. Overseeing a $1 billion budget, she can afford to experiment. But it's not only the money, it's the latitude: "GE is a brand with the permission to do a lot of things," Battelle described it.

Comstock spoke about the importance of "visual storytelling" and GE's continued foray into social media and conversational marketing. She said that the company should--and will--be more aggressive in embracing online conversations, further enhancing the use of embedded video ads and engaging audiences through multimedia content in all of its online channels: "The media plan is becoming the distribution channel." Comstock also made an interesting point about GE's investment in consumer marketing: in her eyes, it elevates the overall brand because it provides a strong umbrella for all of GE's B2B marketing. She's on top of an emerging trend: at the end of the day, enterprise clients are consumers and have the same emotional needs (or as the saying goes, "B2B customers are consumers who have the luxury of having a company pay for what they desire"). On the engagement level, conversational media seem to increasingly force B2B marketers to think like consumer marketers and develop programs that connect directly with the customer--through narratives rather than benefit statements and feature lists.

Will standardized metrics stifle innovation?
The most interesting debates throughout the two-day program centered on the elephant in the room: measurement. Most people in the industry would probably agree that the "end of the click" is near. CPM (cost-per-thousand impressions) and CTR (click-through-rate) do not suffice anymore as go-to metrics for the effectiveness of brand-building display advertising campaigns.

A recent report from Starcom MediaVest suggests that the majority of clicks being purchased are being consumed by unemployed, twenty-something, gambling, shopaholic, Internet addicts: "Heavy clickers represent just 6 percent of the online population yet account for 50 percent of all display ad clicks. While many online media companies use click-through rate as an ad negotiation currency, (...) heavy clickers are not representative of the general public. In fact, heavy clickers skew towards Internet users between the ages of 25-44 and households with an income under $40,000. Heavy clickers behave very differently online than the typical Internet user, and while they spend four times more time online than non-clickers, their spending does not proportionately reflect this very heavy Internet usage. Heavy clickers are also relatively more likely to visit auctions, gambling, and career services sites--a markedly different surfing pattern than non-clickers."

Therefore the cry for new types of brand engagement metrics is getting louder: "There is more and more emphasis by advertisers for greater return-on-objectives in campaigns, particularly in the digital space where the accountability data is so readily available," said Grant Prentice, Starcom USA's director of connections research and analytics. "'Natural Born Clickers' shows us that we can't count on click-through rate as our primary success metric for display ads; Starcom is more reliant on shifts in brand attitude metrics and analytics tying online exposure to sales as the true measures of online advertising efficacy." Added Battelle: "The success of online advertising can no longer be defined only by direct response metrics. Today's brand marketers are focusing on an entirely different set of parameters."

However, at present, there exists a plethora of metrics but no standardized set of measurements that lets conversational marketers prove the impact of their programs.

"One of the greatest barriers that we've seen for marketers in social media has been a general lack of standards and tools for campaign measurement and reporting," said Debra Aho Williamson, analyst at eMarketer. "There are, of course, vendors who supply disconnected data points, but it has so far been up to the marketer to wade through this sea of data themselves. What is needed is a single device or methodology that aggregates relevant data in an easily digestible form." Several companies and industry alliances have developed dashboard models seeking to fill that gap.

Federated Media, the summit organizer, introduced its own product: the Conversational Measurement Toolbox, an open suite of campaign measurement, planning, and reporting tools across the three dimensions--"engagement-amplification-equity"--offering marketers greater control and insight into their conversational marketing efforts.

Not everyone working on the creative side of the business is buying into the quest for a standardization of metrics. George Bennett, founder and CEO of branded entertainment firm Magic Bullet Media, contends that viral marketing campaigns are by nature unmeasurable, at least by standardized measures.

In his eyes, viral content, by definition, spreads through paths that are outside of the marketer's domain and are therefore difficult to track--and that's exactly how it should be. Well, probably not much longer. Video analytics firm Visible Measures announced Monday that it is launching a service that enables advertisers and agencies to measure the viral reach and audience engagement of video campaigns. Visible Measures' technology monitors user engagement in a given video stream, and its Viral Reach Database tracks video performance over 80 million unique videos across 150 of the Web's most popular video-sharing sites.

Let 100 flowers bloom
Amid the fixation on engagement metrics, Rich Silverstein, co-chairman and partner of advertising agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, brought back the idea of the good old big idea: "If it's good, it will work. Nice ideas that are big and deep will go a long way." And they even become a broader conversation, a cultural phenomenon, as proven by the recent Clinton vs. Obama Saturday Night Live spot (and a Time cover), both of which were inspired by a Silberstein NBA commercial.

Maybe a standardization of metrics would indeed stifle innovation and social media marketers' appetite for experiments. In the unregulated, fragmented social media space that we're in right now, anything goes, which may very well be a major factor for its vibrancy. Failure is always an option. Andy Markowitz from Kraft Foods quoted Guy Kawasaki: "Let 100 flowers boom."

However, Steve Rubel, senior vice president and director of insights for Edelman Digital, slammed the industry.

"We've gone backwards. There's no standard. The TV screen has a number. A dollar is a dollar. Having a standard makes transactions work. IAB has been moving slowly, fearing, justifiably, that if they come down from Mt. Sinai with two tablets offering a Ten Commandments of metrics, they worry that things could change in six months and render any standard useless," said Rubel, who also writes the Micro Persuasion blog. "Because there are no standards, all agencies are speaking different languages and no one has an answer."

Yet he reminded the audience that the "social Web is made of people" and demanded additional qualitative metrics that measure the impact of conversational marketing on the other side of the equation--the consumer. Social media, at its core, is about collaboration, he argued, and attempts to simply apply the old, quantitative templates of tracking marketing programs would fall short of capturing the essence of online conversations. They are no longer one-way streets: "Consumers are tired of being treated like cattle." They know they are marketed to and expect substantial value in return for their permission, said Rubel.

Consequently, metrics failing to measure the value of marketing programs for consumers would be one-sided and skewed. He also suggested rebranding "conversational marketing" as "collaborative marketing."

"Conversations are just a means to an end," he said, and he finds them valueless if they don't have a positive impact on consumers' lives. That's a somewhat radical proposition, seemingly far ahead of its time. What would truly consumer-focused, impact-driven conversational marketing metrics look like? A good question for the next CM Summit, this fall, in San Francisco.