SBJ/February 11-17, 2013/In Depth

As digital marketing evolves, so do ROI tools

Forget, for the moment, followers on Twitter and Facebook likes. Those basic measurements for social media and other digital campaigns and promotions remain important, but the conversation among agencies, brands, teams and leagues targets a deeper dive.

Consider the U.S. Golf Association. A recent project with Adobe, the digital marketing and media company, aimed to improve annual membership sales and renewals on the golf governing body’s website. To do that, Adobe compared three versions of the USGA Web page: the original membership sales page and two newly created variations.

The results were crunched using a range of measurements and characteristics, from how extensive and expensive the membership purchased was on each particular visit, to how the visitors were referred to the site.

One of the new test pages — described as a simpler layout with briefer descriptions of membership options — led to much-improved results. The USGA and Adobe found slight gains in the conversion rate but, more importantly, a 26 percent jump in spending by page visitors compared with the default page, or $6 more an order.

USA Network worked with agency rEvolution to create an end zone dance competition in five major markets to drum up interest in the network’s “Necessary Roughness” show.
Photo by: Getty Images
“We try to stay focused on the end-all objective, and that is the return on investment,” said Chad Warren, Adobe’s global social media lead for digital marketing. “If it’s a retailer, how is what we’re doing or what they’re doing going to drive bottom-line sales? If it’s a sports franchise, how do they put more people in seats? The irony of sports is that because there is so much passion, it’s easy to get caught up in vanity and lose the objective.”

Using various methods, brands and companies in the sports sphere, much like all digital marketers, spend much of their time these days seeking to hone measurement and analysis.

At Adobe, up-to-the-minute data-crunching helped clients such as NBC Universal, Vail Resorts and Active Network glean insights about who their customers are; how they interact through websites, apps and social media; and what motivates them.

NBC Universal, for example, learned that the number of unique visitors to its Winter Olympics website increased by 250 percent between 2006 and 2010. What is more important, for a media company spending billions of dollars for broadcast and online rights, is that the research found that 32 percent of users viewed TV coverage and the website at the same time, a key piece of information for a business dependent on ad sales across multiple platforms.

Advertising, of course, remains a vexing matter for gauging impact and influence no matter the medium. Because of that decades-old dilemma, anything that improves accuracy in analysis, online and beyond, carries considerable allure.

More companies and brands have embraced Twitter and Facebook because the costs can be much lower and the feedback can be measured to a greater extent than just estimating the number of people who saw a particular ad, promotion or conversation.

Cable company Comcast, in support of its Xfinity sports package, has gradually ramped up its social media presence. Matt Lederer, Comcast director of sports marketing, recalled the company first made forays with the site SBNation as a sponsor. That provided entrée to ask members of the SBNation audience whether they were Xfinity customers, whether they would consider becoming customers if they weren’t already and, regardless, what their impressions were of the company and its products.

From there, Lederer said, Comcast became more aggressive. Last year, to promote Xfinity’s tag of “Your home for the most live sports,” Comcast launched a contest to hire someone to become the voice of Xfinity on Twitter. The full-time job, lasting a year, went to Austin Schindel, who recently wrapped up a yearlong odyssey connecting cable channels and other partners with social media. Schindel, who will soon be replaced with the second Twitter campaign winner, built an audience of 13,000 followers by embarking on behind-the-scenes adventures at the NFL draft, during the filming of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series, and at MLB’s Opening Day and All-Star Game.

“You get real-time feedback,” Lederer said. “As we branch out, we go through the research life-cycle again and say, ‘OK, what does this mean?’”

He declined to provide specific research results but said Xfinity has determined the social media campaigns have not only fostered awareness but also led to increases in subscribers and upgraded subscriptions.

Industry experts told SportsBusiness Journal again and again that online and social media buzz alone can no longer justify the investment of time and money in a digital marketing campaign.

“It should be held to the same standards of all marketing,” said AJ Maestas, president at Navigate Research. “It’s about nurturing existing customers and the acquisition of new customers.”

Steve Seiferheld, senior vice president of customer research at Turnkey, said the success or failure of digital marketing differs little from more traditional campaigns. Because the digital world is a more recent phenomenon, and transforms itself on a constant and accelerated basis, the tools to determine value are evolving and range from the likes and followers referenced earlier to advanced techniques that gauge customer sentiment, attitudes and responses.

Among the examples: Research Now, a data collection and market research firm. The company regularly surveys about 3 million people, with 1 million recruited and retained through incentives to allow monitoring of what online ad campaigns they have seen and then gauge their responses, said Eric Sandberg, Research Now vice president.

More than 300 attributes are considered, but a few get to the heart of digital marketing: what audience was reached, how much time they spent with the message, and whether it resonated with the consumers.

As with other forms of marketing, in other words, who the audience is can be just as or more important than its size.
“It could be 600 people important to one client and 1 million to another,” said John Rowady, president of sports marketing and media agency rEvolution. “We haven’t totally gotten a hold of that [as an industry]. The perception is a big number means it’s successful and if it’s not a big number, it isn’t working.”

The goal, he added, is to build an audience, keep it and talk to those audience members on a consistent basis. If the audience dissipates, Rowady said his firm views it “as negative ROI.”

REvolution looks for extensive, back-and-forth interaction. Last year, for example, for the USA Network series “Necessary Roughness,” rEvolution stirred interest for the show by orchestrating an end zone dance contest. In five high-traffic locations in Boston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, the agency set up end zones where passersby could go and have a touchdown celebration filmed and uploaded to the show’s website. People could vote for their favorite dances and everything linked online and on social media. The winner’s celebration dance clip appeared during the first episode on the network.

Awareness, media mentions and interest in the show all emanated from what would have been a one-day promotion before the digital age.

At Atlanta-based digital firm CSE, which counts Coke and AT&T among its sports clients, executives said the flood of real-time consumer reactions creates opportunity and pressure alike to respond and adjust campaigns and logistics.

“You can put a campaign out there and if people like it, you can scale it up,” said Adam Zimmerman, president of marketing at CSE. “Or, conversely, you cut your losses. You save a ton of money if you’ve got a stinker. And it doesn’t take six or 12 months [to figure it out].”

Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.

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