Sure, digital advertising is less expensive than placing a glossy ad in a magazine, but what is that digital investment really worth?

As brands continue to spend more each quarter on destination sites such as Facebook or, they’re also trying to become savvier about how they measure the return on their investment. But that’s usually not as easy as it sounds. Scott McDonald, senior vice president, market research, Condé Nast Publications Inc., who moderated a panel on management and measurement, said he’s learned that “as the number of options has increased, it has become more difficult to make sense of the numbers. It can be hard to compare data apples to apples, but you want to know if you’re spending money foolishly — or where you should be doubling down.”

This story first appeared in the December 9, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

As for fashion and beauty advertising online, it’s still early days in terms of a real return-on-investment measurement that works for everyone. “The more you understand it, the more complex it gets,” said Marisa Thalberg, vice president, global online marketing, the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. “I think we’re all looking for the answer key in the back of the book. We’re on this journey like everyone, but we think of it like a spectrum and try and find the objectives of everything we do. Now, we have a fairly robust e-commerce business. The clear measurement is return on investment, which is easily measurable.”

Lisa Holladay, manager, brand experience marketing, Mercedes-Benz USA, said she has certain programs that are easy to measure, like a driving event. A title sponsor, such as the one the brand has with New York Fashion Week, is much trickier. “We look for a portfolio of things to measure,” she said.

Dave Balter, founder and chief executive officer of BzzAgent, added that “understanding what the objectives are and making sure you can truly measure against them” is crucial for the process. Meanwhile, Jon Gibs, vice president, Media Analytics, Nielsen Online said, “one of the trends we are seeing is a lot more creativity in the ad design process. People want more creativity in the research and to talk about branding elements in a different way.”

In the end, though, one of the best yardsticks is simple common sense.

“We rely on common sense all the time,” Holladay noted. “I have a beautiful, sexy product that I can show people, but how can I have people fall in love with the brand just because it’s there? Sometimes I look for return on investment and sometimes it’s return on objective.”

Over at Estée Lauder, Thalberg said digital advertising has tended to be more “episodic.”

“Finding discipline and consistency seems to be a good place to start, because it is constantly changing,” she said, adding that within only digital advertising, the abundance of data does not equate to clear analysis. “It’s the biggest blessing and the biggest curse. If you look at it the wrong way, you could come to the wrong conclusions. If you look at the last piece of marketing that touched a consumer before she converted, maybe we are disproportionately crediting it when there were other pieces in the mix. The analysis is critical — much more so than the abundance of data.”

“I don’t think there’s any perfect science that’s going to get us the answer we are looking for,” said David Shiffman, senior vice president, connections and research analytics, MediaVest USA.

To sum up, McDonald said, only half jokingly, that, “I don’t think it’s conceivable to summarize all of this. But it seems that the key takeaway is one size doesn’t fit all. Start with the consumer and the objectives and don’t expect to push a button and expect an answer.”

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