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Why sharp data tools blunt an old saw

“I know half my marketing budget is wasted. The trouble is I don’t know which half.”

Any marketing professional will have come across that quotation by Philadelphia retailer John Wanamaker. Or it might have been said by Henry Ford, JC Penney, or any other of a half a dozen early twentieth century titans of commerce.

Its dubious provenance is only part of the problem I have with it: its superficial folk wisdom doesn’t bear much scrutiny (as WPP’s Jeremy Bullmore wrote in a thoughtful essay on the sentence in 2013.) Its biggest problem is that it is has never been true. There has never been a good excuse for marketing expenditure to be “wasted”, as long as campaign goals and metrics are defined in advance.

In Wanamaker’s heyday (or Penney’s, Ford’s, whomever’s) it would have been a straightforward job to establish the impact of a marketing campaign, especially since most such pre-mass-media spending was geographically isolated. By taking the gross sales for a defined period after a campaign, subtracting the pre-campaign average, and dividing the difference (hopefully, a positive figure!) into the marketing dollars spent, Wanamaker could work out, say, whether billboards in Harrisburg did better than those in Wilkes-Barre, or if radio spots in either city beat print ads. Of course, other factors might have played a role in sales performance over time, but Wanamaker wouldn’t have been flying half-blind in calculating the return on marketing investment.

Maybe the quotation bemoans the fact that many people who saw the billboards or ads, or heard the radio spots, would have been unmoved to buy. That’s not really the point, though. Other things being equal if, after a campaign, sales went up, the marketing expenditure would have been amply justified.

Made to measure

Today it’s doubly more pointless to wheel out this maxim as a get-out-of-the-CFO’s-office-free card, for the simple reason that you can be much more targeted in your marketing—and since our bread and butter is B2B content, I’ll stick to that—on platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, together with old-fashioned media.

There are also many thousands more ways to measure the impact of that expenditure, through numerous engagement and brand impact metrics—as well as the plain old top line. Of course, too much choice isn’t exactly helpful here. That’s why for all content campaigns, marketers need to establish the precise business goals and what kind of measurements would constitute success, before pulling the trigger.

The key thing to remember is that every campaign is different. Among our clients, for instance, a tech firm selling a specific solution to a specific decision-maker in a specific industry measures the impact of their content in terms of its power to earn marketing qualified leads, benchmarking the marketing budget against their average cost per lead.

A major bank, meanwhile, seeking to raise the profile of its senior staff among corporate treasurers in a certain country, prefers to track LinkedIn engagement as the most important figure to focus on. Select other social media stats are used as supporting evidence, along with brand awareness studies.

It’s important to get the buy-in of the budget decision makers on these metrics in advance. Otherwise, when it comes to talking about the impact of your content, the temptation is to wheel out every stat under the sun to justify its success—which won’t win you any friends among time-poor senior management. And they certainly won’t accept the excuse, given with a shrug, that half the marketing budget has always been wasted, so what are they worried about anyway?

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