Does online marketing produce a return?

This week I was running a masterclass when I asked what I thought was an easy question. I simply said, “What, exactly, are you hoping to achieve with each item of content on your website?”

There was a pause, some puzzled looks and then a mumbled, “What do you mean?”

We then entered into a discussion as to the purpose of online marketing. I argued that all marketing only had one purpose – to produce a profit. Otherwise, I said, your business is just a hobby. 

It was evident, though, that the company I was dealing with was undertaking online marketing activities without connecting them to profit. The only “return” they were measuring was numbers of visitors, or how often their work was shared or mentioned on social media. I was quite challenging with them at that point because I said, “So you are only interested in vanity measures, not sanity measures.” That got their attention.

Like many businesses, it turned out that the company’s analysis of how well it was doing regarding online marketing was looking at those obvious measures, such as the number of visitors. But, as I pointed out, you can get a billion people to a website, yet if none of them spends any money, you may as well have not had any visitors at all. 

It turns out that the company I was working with are not alone. They are rather like the majority of businesses that undertake online marketing. Several studies have shown that companies are measuring all kinds of data, but not connecting that to sales information. Indeed, a recent analysis found that firms are “clueless when it comes to Return on Investment”. 

There is a reason for this. Collecting the “vanity” information is easy. Knowing how many people visited your website, or followed you on Twitter is simple and straightforward data to collect. Working out the Return on Investment (ROI) on your web presence is rather more complex. After all, how do you know if a sale is due to some content on your web, activity in social media or an email? 

As I explained in my masterclass, there is an easy solution to this, and that is to decide in advance what the connection is going to be. Here’s how.

Let’s imagine you have some kind of service to sell. Checking whether someone has bought that service is feasible when a receipt has been produced. So your target end-point in this instance would be the sending of a receipt.

But how do you get to that point? Well, of course, someone needs to click on a “buy now” button. Or, if this is a business service, someone in your company needs to do the equivalent in your ordering system or CRM programme. 

What happens before the click, though? It might be an email, or it could be a piece of web content.

But how do people get that content? Well, that might be due to a Tweet, for example. 

So, in this instance, it would be possible to see if the Tweet leads to the person going to the web content and then clicking on the “buy now” button to produce the receipt. You could track the receipt directly back to the Tweet, thereby enabling you to work out the value of your Twitter activity.

Essentially you need “pathways” which take people from one point of contact, through several others perhaps, until the money is in the bank. You can then trace that cash all the way back to the original piece of marketing that started the pathway. The result of which is that you can see which elements of your online activity produces the highest income. 

For most companies I meet, the real issue about online marketing is the lack of pathways connecting original elements of marketing activity through to the sale. Without such connecting routes set up in advance, you are fumbling in the dark, looking for connections, not being able to find them, so focus on something easy, like visitor numbers, instead. 

With pre-set pathways, you can see how much money you make from each item of your marketing. You will then know whether your email marketing is more valuable than your social media marketing, for example. Mostly, though, the companies I meet are guessing. When I ask them what ROI they are getting on individual aspects of their online business, they cannot tell me. That’s because they haven’t put in place the measurement systems to enable this to happen. The result is that many companies could be losing money by undertaking marketing that has little or no ROI. Indeed, I suspect that quite a high number of businesses are losing money, rather than making it online. 

Making sure you know what ROI you are getting is relatively straightforward when you use Google Analytics for tracking sales. If you want to know the value of your email marketing, programs like MailChimp offer integrations with your website and sales system so that you can directly measure the return on your emails. You could also use CRM software to connect specific landing pages to particular sales activities. If you want to collate all of your data together, then you can use something like Zoho Dashboards to give you a complete overview of your marketing and what returns you are getting.

You are not short of methods of measuring ROI from your online activities. The question is, are you using such methods? Or, like most marketers are you guessing, making assumptions, or worse still (as the latest research report says) you are “clueless” when it comes to ROI.

To make sure you are clued-up, just think of your online activity this way. What is the endpoint I want a visitor to get to? And having decided that ask what route do you want them to take to get there? Once you have those ideas in place, you can track each visitor and determine your success. You’ll discover what actually works, in terms of profits, and what you can ditch.

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