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Online Marketing Measurement In The Public Sector: A Primer

We are witness to a seismic shift in the advertising industry driven in large part by the simple, but fundamental, need for flexibility and accountability. Traditionally, advertising has used relatively “inflexible” media for message delivery: print, out-of-home, and broadcast. Once initiated, adjusting campaign messaging for these formats can be costly, thereby requiring considerable focus-group testing before launch. Impact is measured via surveys, most often well after the campaign has been run. It’s a high-cost and high-stakes approach.

Digital marketing has completely shifted this paradigm. This medium is flexible, and because everything is measurable, it is fully accountable. Marketers in the private sector are leveraging these two aspects to build multi-channel campaigns tied to robust performance measurement frameworks that directly tie ad spend to outcomes. We believe that there is enormous opportunity for the public sector to appropriately leverage some of the key digital marketing concepts used by the private sector to improve outreach and messaging, and with a much lower cost per outcome.

Pre-click vs. Post-click

Fundamental to the digital space is the ability to understand both the pre-click and post-click dimensions of the ad spend. Pre-click refers to all the attributes associated with the ad prior to clicking on it (e.g. impressions). In contrast, post-click measures how respondents who click on your ads engage with you. The ability to understand how audiences consider and react to your message at a granular level can offer immense value to the advertiser. By measuring the level of post-click engagement, it is possible to understand and evaluate in near time how well audiences are responding to, and acting upon, your campaign. This insight gives you the option to recalibrate the campaign if and as necessary.

The challenge (and opportunity) facing many communicators and marketers is connecting the pre- and the post-click worlds. Simply counting impressions and sending visitors to a landing page is no way to evaluate campaign effectiveness (impressions are so 20th century!). Thought, planning, and execution of the post-click environment is required by developing campaign-specific content, arrayed over several pages and including clear calls to action (download a report; call 1-800 number; locate a service center; use a nutritional calculator; play a social marketing game; become a Twitter follower, etc.). While this can be challenging, particularly where ownership for content and architecture does not rest with any one group, it is a prerequisite to measuring and understanding outcomes, as opposed to impressions.

Flexible, Scalable, Measurable

E-mail, social media, mobile, online ads, the website and search marketing are but some of the fully measurable digital channels available for marketers today. All these channels also have the benefit of being flexible – multiple versions of creative content can be developed for each channel and each can be run simultaneously as well as tested to determine which produces the best post-click outcomes. Two of the key indicators used in this process (referred to as campaign optimization) are: 1) conversion rates (the % of visitors who execute a specific action); and 2) cost per visitor.

The goal of optimization is to maximize outcomes, as opposed to impressions. This is a very different mindset from traditional media measurement and requires ongoing monitoring and reallocation of spend towards those channels that are most effective at producing the desired program goals. As a general rule, we have found that visitor acquisition costs via digital channels to be less than $2.00, and per-outcome costs are often $10 or less (Adwords being one of the most effective channels). This contrasts to TV ads which often have much higher visitor acquisition costs (we’ve seen as high as $250 per visitor), and even higher still per outcome costs.

Advertising in the Age of Search and the Era of Intent

At PublicInsite, we focus on two key concepts with our clients. The first is what we call the “Age of Search and the Era of Intent”. It has become almost second nature to go online and search in response to a question, concern or idea. Search patterns, therefore directly capture and reflect the searcher’s intent. Our propensity to use search is one of the reasons why Google is generating over $6-billion in revenue per quarter.

The second concept is that “Advertising serves to embed keywords”. When we see an ad, we may not retain the website address, but if successful, we’ll retain a message, which at some point may be expressed in the form of keywords used to execute a search. It is therefore critical that public sector ad campaigns consider their search profile (i.e. what appears on a search results page) when planning their campaign – particularly for those keywords or messages emphasized their ad.

Social mobile changes everything

Our research shows that traffic from mobile devices grew by over 250% from 2008 to 2009. In March of this year, global mobile data traffic exceeded voice traffic for the first time and is expected to continue to outpace voice traffic i. What is different about the mobile platform is that it captures interstitial time, is location-aware and lowers the barrier to action. For the advertisers, this opens up profound possibilities to tailor and deliver time-sensitive, geographically-targeted ads, and to measure how the post-click behaviours differ from their stationary counterparts. We have already noticed how out-of-home ads placed in public transit locations work at generating mobile visits (i.e. standing around at a bus stop and keying in an advertised URL).

Finally, at a recent conference Dan Rose, VP of Business Development at Facebook shared two astonishing statistics: 25% of their traffic is from mobile devices, and less than 14% of teenagers use e-mail. Mobile devices and social media are combining to empower what John Batelle of Wired magazine calls the ‘status update’ generation (the apocryphal story of the girls who got lost in a storm drain and used their mobile phones to update their Facebook pages to ask for help immediately comes to mind ii). Facebook and other social media outlets provide unique platforms that enable demographic and geographic targeting. Think of ads for a nutrition campaign that appear on a phone when a teenager enters a fast food restaurant.

More impact, less spend

In an era of shrinking resources and expanding needs, the ability to do more with less—while not sacrificing impacts—presents a compelling value proposition for public sector managers. Private sector marketers have been quick to realize the potential and seize the benefits inherent in digital marketing. We believe that their approach and measurement methodologies can and should be adapted to fit a public sector, social marketing context.


i GigaOM/Ericsson, March 2010 (http://bit.ly/dkGqNM)

ii Trapped girls updated Facebook instead of calling police, Daily Telegraph, Sept 2009 (http://bit.ly/9jWfY2)

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