Conversation Quotient


NEW YORK What's a friend worth? It's the question marketers are asking more and more as they plow into social media in the hopes of finding new customers in welcoming environments while going beyond simple messaging to the fuzzy notion of "engagement."

But with the rapid growth of social media has come the challenge of measuring the new ways consumers are interacting with and sharing advertisers' content and brands. In many cases, the biggest difficulty is not just figuring out what to measure but what to ignore -- and how to square the need for metrics-driven accountability with the more qualitative feedback endemic to conversation-based channels.

The pressure to justify whether these stabs at so-called "conversational marketing" are paying off against business goals is increasing. Yet the immaturity of the space means few accepted definitions of success, which means many programs are judged more qualitatively, experts said.

"It's still in its infancy," said Max Kalehoff, vp, marketing for Clickable, a search marketing software company. "Marketers are trying to bridge the divide of what the metrics mean and then put them into action."

Social media publishers like MySpace and Facebook are in something of a pickle. While users spend tons of time on their sites, many question the effectiveness of their ads there -- at least using traditional online metrics, particularly clicks.

A Google executive admitted as much earlier this year, saying the company was finding it hard to run effective ads in social media. Google signed a deal in August 2006 to run search and contextual ads on MySpace. Beyond direct response metrics, many agency executives say an environment like MySpace or Facebook isn't ideal for building brand awareness using regular banner ads because, despite all the time users spend on these sites, they tend to be there to socialize with friends. The vast amount of applications, music players, wallpaper and other doodads tends to distract their attention from the ads relegated to the page's periphery.

Heidi Browning, svp of client solutions at Fox Interactive Media and a former executive at Organic, has heard it all before. She laments these "myths," which she believes miss the extra oomph social media gives brands. "We've taken a step backwards with people talking about click-through rates," she said, noting a recent comScore-Starcom study that found frequent ad clickers aren't the best customers.

Instead, MySpace is trying to quantify the extra value advertisers get from campaigns that combine traditional banner ads with community pages that include downloadable content that can spread virally through the site. In its first effort at this with Carat last April, it found that more than half the value of MySpace campaigns comes from letting users download wallpaper, embed videos and add brands as their friends -- endorsements that tend to outweigh the effect on consumers from standard ad messaging.

"That was the power of that environment," Brian Mathena, group director at Carat in Los Angeles, said.

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