MBA: Proof vs Social Ridicule

Socially led digital advertising can be risky for clients, so providing evidence it works is crucial.

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer stated: "All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident."

Most advertising formats have overcome these hurdles and become recognised as self-evident ways to sell products. The only one that hasn't is the new breed of digital campaign, which, rather problematically for those trying to persuade clients to try it, is still frequently ridiculed.

Unfortunately, it's really hard to get socially led digital campaigns to Schopenhauer's third stage because there's so much misinformation about their effectiveness. Traditional media, including established digital communications such as banners and e-mail, have proven their success by delivering measurable results. But these new digital routes are yet to provide much more than a virtual headcount of their Facebook fans as indication of their achievement.

The unconventional creative routes these new campaigns take has made it even tougher to win the trust of clients. The digital world rewards risk-takers. It celebrates Barbie dolls in blenders and babies on rollerskates. But this kind of brave creative execution is scary - and needs evidence to justify.

As well as encouraging clients to try new digital strategies, conclusive proof will also ensure they have realistic expectations. Not every brand will be the next Old Spice, but this doesn't mean that innovative digital is a mistake. Both expectations and results need to be better managed - and online activity needs to be part of an integrated campaign, rather than viewed as a get-rich-quick scheme.

Take the latest recipient of criticism for demonstrating digital daring: Pepsi. The brand used a significant portion of its advertising budget on "social media only" activity in the "Refresh" project, forsaking its Super Bowl slot in favour of a $20 million online initiative. Soon after, Pepsi lost its traditional place as America's secondmost-popular soft drink, following a period of steadily declining revenue.

A barrage of criticism followed Pepsi's foray into social media. Many labelled the brand as idiotic for believing it could usurp traditional advertising. Bob Hoffman, better known as the Ad Contrarian, described the campaign as "a disaster", pronouncing "only zealots and fools will continue to bow down to the gods of social media".

At first glance, Pepsi's strategic shift seems to have backfired, but further probing suggests that perhaps its poor financial performance had more to do with other changes in the business (including an inadequately executed redesign). There are even whispers that the new approach actually helped curb the brand's downward trajectory.

Little is clear except one thing - it's impossible to evaluate Pepsi's campaign without a meaningful way to conclusively measure digital work on a commercial level.

Despite the cynicism of Hoffman, many brands are reporting success with digital campaigns. RadioShack's chief marketing officer, Lee Applbaum, recently discussed the success of Foursquare campaigns, claiming: "Foursquare users at RadioShack generally spend three-and-a-half times more (than) non-Foursquare users."

Yet, it's as difficult to decipher the extent of RadioShack's success as it is to ascertain the scale of Pepsi's failure. After all, isn't it only rational that the people checking into the digital emporium of RadioShack on Foursquare are more likely to invest in technology? Furthermore, does this really tell us how digital marketing has helped the brand? Is this incremental activity? It's clearly correlated, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's causal.

That is half the problem with these new digital campaigns - there's no rigour in the measurement of them. The figures are incredibly flimsy. Incremental? Profit not revenue? Give us some hard numbers please.

Perhaps the lack of results could be attributed to the fact that there's no single way to measure these new types of digital campaigns. The number of people downloading a coupon via your Twitter feed might tell you that it's a great way to get people to try your new product. But if your aim is long-term brand allegiance, you need to find a way to monitor this instead.

In essence, it's imperative that we adapt metrics to match the business objectives. We need to help our clients make the right commercial decisions, and, to do this, we need to be as good at measuring new forms of digital marketing as we are with the traditional.

At MBA, we think this means honing a structured approach - and setting concrete guidelines to ensure rigorous evaluation of digital data:


Be crystal clear about what you are trying to achieve by trying new things. We need to look at metrics that are directly relevant to clients' businesses and marketing goals.


Use data analysis and case studies, and include creative parallels as well as business ones. Show how your idea and its implementation will deliver results by collecting as much information as you can from as many sources as possible. Do whatever it takes.


Make sure that you know how you're going to measure from the start. Ensure there's both micro and macro metrics - detailed results such as hits and sales generated by specific e-mails are important, but you also need to know the cumulative effect, by using metrics such as NPS and econometrics.

Finding ways to make sure our digital campaigns actually sell products fits with our agency's belief in "brand action". We shouldn't just be making good creative work, but creative work that furthers our clients' businesses.

It's been exciting to work with brands such as LoveFilm and Everest, both of which are committed to rigorous measurement. Their respect for the importance of results has allowed us to develop solid commercial proposals - ensuring that our ideas are working hard.

We need to encourage clients to be brave with their choices, but, to do so, it's vital to provide proper evidence of commercial success. Without it, the door is left wide open for the ridicule Schopenhauer warned of.


It's tough for clients to buy socially led digital advertising because it's not fully proven at a commercial level.

This is because there's much confusion surrounding effectiveness.

To help clients decide which commercial choices to make, we need to follow guidelines to ensure robust business cases and measurement.

Robin Garton is the creative director and James Devon is the planning director of MBA

(From Campaign's "What Next in Digital" supplement, July 1 2011)