The Billboard Analogy & The Importance of Proving that Social Media Sells

Coca-Cola isn’t alerted by Rickie’s Convenience Mart every time you buy an ice cold bottle after walking past their signs at the local little league field. Nike can’t run the numbers (groan) on how many times people have purchased new kicks after seeing skinnier people in their ads on the subway. And McDonald’s can’t track the number of times their mouth-watering billboard on the highway has prompted you to throw your new shoes in the backseat and detour your commute home through the local drive-through.

None of these well-worn advertising strategies can show absolute proof of effectiveness. For example, at no point can Coca-Cola print out a Google Analytics chart that reads:

Walker Little League Park
Location: Plymouth, Colorado
Time Period: 09/01/2008 to 09/01/2009
Signs: 1
Size: 3′ x 4′
Views: 120,658
Unique Views: 107,311
Purchases Inspired by This (1) Sign(s): 69 x 12 oz cans, 135 x 20 oz bottles
Unique Views/Sale Conversion Rate: 0.002%

So what’s wrong with them? Why do they continue to plaster every available surface with their logos and product placement? Are they mad? Do they just looooove throwing money around? What’s the value of a sign on a fence? The answer is simple:

There’s value in familiarity.

So then, why—if these corporate giants continue to see the value in pouring untrackable advertisements out into the real world—do so many companies hesitate to do so online?

“Can we track sales?” is a question I hear often when I speak with businesses about the potential of participating in the world of social media. It is a valid question. All businesses, especially smaller ones, are right to be weary of investing valuable time and energy into new marketing landscapes.

I have two answers to that question.

Yes! Sales can be tracked. Just like with pay-per-click advertising campaigns online, businesses can track sales that originate from a specific link that has been passed out into, and around, the digital world. For example, businesses promoting themselves on Twitter can use traffic-tracking services, such as Google’s Analytics, to see the number of folks who have come to their web site from Twitter in general, or from a single Tweet specifically. The same is true of Facebook, YouTube,, Current, the blogosphere at large, and any other web site or service out there.

In this way, businesses can gauge and evaluate the effectiveness of their social media promotions when customers make purchases through the business’s own web site.

No! Sales cannot be tracked. Off-web-site sales, however, are difficult—or impossible—to track. For example, let’s say a customer sees a Facebook news item—which promotes your company’s latest book—slide down their news feed—but, instead of clicking the news item’s link to purchase the book directly from your web site, that person decides, instead, to purchase the book from his or her favorite local book shop. Sure, any sale is a good thing. The problem is—this is one you’ll never know about. Or, more accurately, you’ll never be able to tie that book sale from the local book shop to the Facebook news item you posted.

Is that situation so unlike Coca-Cola’s little league signs?

Obviously, no mortal business owner can afford to plaster every little league field in the the country with signs just for a little familiarity. So in order to place products in front of potentially millions of people every day, businesses must market themselves online. Most businesses already know this, and therefore, many businesses invest substantial time and energy building knock-your-socks-off web sites and packing them full of information and content. This is a necessary and wonderful thing to do, but it is only the first step.

Here’s why:


(Comparatively speaking, of course.)
…and Twitter…and YouTube…and the blogosphere…

Where would you rather plunk down a billboard?

Without a social media strategy businesses are limiting their web audience to the people who are already looking for them. And, while great web sites and content are important for high sales conversion rates, they do little to boost traffic. Social media presents you with the opportunity to tap into new audiences and invite interested folks back to your site…for the evening.

By participating in the world of social media, businesses can drop their promotional content, friendly sales staff, and valuable expertise into a sea of millions of very-talkative people. Businesses choosing to conduct themselves well* in these new communities will be served well by rapid-fire word of mouth, increased site traffic, and more trackable (and yes, untrackable) sales. This is the new crowd marketing. And we should be happy that—unlike with real-world crowd marketing—it has a relatively low cost-of-entry and we are able to track more than none of the sales.

There is value in familiarity.

* Social media platforms cannot be viewed as new marketing channels—in the old sense of the term. These are communities. People do not sign on to be bombarded with one-way marketing messages. Businesses doing so get blocked and un-friended and booed and bad-mouthed. People use these spaces for friendly and encouraging interactions. Relax your marketing muscles and go meet your customers.

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