Sorting Through the Numbers: How to Evaluate Online Marketing and Advertising Programs

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Online advertising and marketing is a tricky business. We all struggle with the varied metrics to justify ad buys and e-marketing campaigns. Selecting metrics is never easy, particularly when the industry is lacking in standardized definitions and parameters.


Click-throughs, unique visitors, visitors, page views, total Web traffic, hits, etc., etc., etc. The more fragmented online traffic proof point terminology gets, the more difficult choosing the best online options as well as justifying these programs will become. Internal and external audiences are tiring of hearing this myriad of terms, turning a skeptical eye and ultimately making life more difficult for you as the marketer (both strategically and from a budgeting view).


There's no doubt that online programs are worthwhile investments, so how to get a grip on tangible results?


Before you wade into the fray, take a reading of your current site. Whether you're about to launch a campaign, looking for benchmarking data during a campaign or are evaluating a completed campaign, start with a site examination. Your IT department is the first step. Pay a visit, bring them a cup of coffee and be nice -- they most likely will not want to spend time pulling data and explaining it to you.


Depending on the server software they use, they'll be able to give you a printout of all the IP addresses (possibly even the company names) that have visited each page of the site, how long they were engaged and which links they followed to navigate the site. This is your best pure traffic reading tool you will ever get your hands on outside of a paid service. Depending on where you are campaign-wise, pull historical records accordingly (make sure to ask nicely what their log cycle is -- you may have to visit them every 30, 60, 90 days).


Now you're equipped with a very basic knowledge of overall traffic to individual pages and links to your site and can begin comparing your raw data with how the world sees your site. Third-party Web site ranking tools come in handy here, and a few are even free.


Here are three tools, free to use, that will help put it all in perspective. Alexa.com provides companies with a general sense of how they stack up to the competition when it comes to site visibility (yes, you can compare with your competition). Numbers, rankings and percentages generated with Alexa.com will give you a good basis for comparison with other sites in your industry. Ranking.com gives your site a ranking as well, but the advantage here is a more detailed breakdown of the numbers, including visitors, unique visitors and page views. Trafficestimate.com is a quick, basic tool that provides an average number of monthly visitors only. Plug in your URL and see how visible your site is to the world.


While these tools provide good basic data, be sure to research other third-party tools like these and understand their abilities and limitations. Traffic definitions can vary, sample pools and data collection are sometimes skewed toward one audience or geography. For example, most evaluation sites cull data from users who download toolbars, limiting the scope to particular browsers, global regions and other caveats. Used with a careful eye, these tools can be very helpful.


You're now ready to evaluate which sites to promote your company and services on. These same independent traffic assessment tools work for this task, too. Since you already know the strengths and weaknesses of these tools, you can use them accordingly to evaluate which sites to engage with. Viewing each site in the equation under the same lens will avoid having to navigate the ever-changing traffic definitions.


Adding a link popularity assessment tool (offered free through Alexa.com and Linkpopularity.com) is a worthwhile step to your evaluation. These tools take a reading of how many sites link to and from a particular site. The basic premise here is that the more linked a site is, the more "visible" that site is on other sites and the more traffic that will be directed to that site.


Like all marketing strategies, online programs make a lot of sense and can stretch your dollar far. Defining clear metrics based on consistent data points will save you much time and aggravation. With a firm grip on where your site stands, benchmarking traffic data and a clearer view of your competitive landscape, you can better evaluate e-marketing and advertising programs.


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