There's probably no better time for an organization to ask the question, "What's the return on investment?" Given the economic uncertainty, it's an understandable instinct.
The problem is, traditional ROI, with its focus groups and lab-type settings, is less relevant in a fast-paced digital world. Hyperfocusing on ROI as a key indicator of future success limits the quality of insights that can be obtained when an initiative is launched in a real environment. In the real world, a "mass audience" doesn't really exist (this is especially true on the Web) and brands that deal in niches are rewarded. In the real world, the collective is the focus group.
It's time to focus on another type of ROI, one we like to call Return on Insight. Here are some tips on how brands should think about this new form of ROI.
There are many ways to listen to what's being said about your company, product, brand, service and most importantly, related universe. Services from vendors such as Radian 6, Collective Intellect, Networked Insights, or Nielsen BuzzMetrics uncover and analyze what people are saying both inside communities and on the open Web. For our recently launched Pampers Village community, P&G (PG) partnered with a company called Liveworld (LVWD), which offers such services as building and managing the community. Liveworld helps us listen to and moderate user interactions in the community, which not only helps filter out inappropriate comments so the quality of the community experience is maintained, but also allows the brand to listen to what consumers want to discuss—from parental topics to features they would like to see in the community. Another great technique for listening is using the social network Twitter. Brands can use search.twitter.com to monitor what people are saying about them—in the context of actual conversations.
Crucially, brands need to listen at all times, not just at the beginning of a project. Listening through the life of a campaign or initiative yields insights into attitudes and identifies which consumers have influence, as well as the most fertile ground for digital engagement.
If you don't launch, you don't learn. Pilot initiatives can be quickly launched using prototype methodologies. We typically perform "rapid design labs," engaging multiple stakeholders across multidisciplinary teams to flesh out objectives and get into some rough design activity. By the end of a typical rapid design lab, we have the beginnings of something that can be built. Part of the goal is to see what happens so we can analyze findings along the way. When we worked on the NASA.gov redesign, we got the idea of "social bookmarking" content and organizing topics in "tags" from these sessions.
With the site launched and evolving, metrics are analyzed to help determine what's working. With most initiatives on this scale, the design is ongoing and never really ends. As with "Listen," "Learn" is NOT a phase; it must be continual. Learning helps reduce risk and helps executives make better decisions on an ongoing basis. Both are critical in a down economy.
If estimating traditional ROI is a predictive exercise, then gauging the Return on Insight is an adaptive one. In order to glean both strategic and tactical insights, organizations have to be nimble enough to measure what is or isn't working and make adjustments. Think about navigating a small fleet of speedboats vs. a large cruise liner. Analytics again play a big role. From helping to identify consumer sentiment to measuring the effectiveness of a campaign or initiative, the science behind marketing provides insights into how to move forward. But it's not just about data points. Digital media may be easily measurable, but a combination of analysts, planners and other team members is needed to make sense of the data. That team should think like "digital anthropologists," sifting through the quantitative data that analytics can provide and pulling insights from the qualitative inputs.
Stage a Revolution Within Your Own Organization
The advent of Web 2.0 and social media has been nothing short of revolutionary. Today, consumers can most likely move faster than your organization or brand could ever dream. To keep up with the changing behavior of customers, your organization may need to undergo its own revolution. As you prepare for this, you might want to ask yourself the following questions:
1. Are you actively listening to your customers in the places they frequent online?
2. Are you launching initiatives that can be easily updated? Are you enabling a "culture of rapid response?"
3. Are you evaluating current processes and updating them as needed?
4. Are you building a culture in which "failure" is acceptable?
5. Are you allowing your teams to create "pilots" prior to scrutinizing them through traditional ROI exercises?
6. Are you planning initiatives that will help your organization learn prior to backing major marketing campaigns?
7. Are you synthesizing qualitative insights in addition to analyzing hard data points?
8. Are you tweaking your strategy along the way—and adapting where change may be needed?
9. Are you empowering all members of your teams to think and act like "digital anthropologists?"
10. Are you evolving the tools and methods to measure success (i.e. going beyond clicks and impressions)?
The Internet has evolved into a highly fragmented and niche medium where the formulae of mass communications and even traditional interactive tactics may not apply. Every day, average users are putting out both content and applications that sometimes compete directly with your own. Now more than ever, executives need to have a solid grasp of the nuances that exist online in order to get—and sustain—the attention of digital consumers. And, critically, insights into digital behavior can help us design the kinds of solutions people want as part of this lifestyle. By listening and engaging the "collective" through all phases of our initiatives, we now have opportunities not only to be more in tune with customer needs, but also to adapt as quickly as they do. In our digital world, that could be the most important ROI possible.