If you are a results-oriented marketer who has been delivering strengthening performance from the online channel for several years, you may be cringing now as you look to deliver your most current reports to the corner office. Those standard go-to charts and figures showing double-digit year-over-year traffic and revenue gains might be starting to bear the scars of the economic downturn. And because your colleagues representing TV and print are still armed with just as few nebulous data points as ever, you may face the unfair prospect of lengthier justifications for your efforts -- for the simple reason that you're the unfortunate soul who felt compelled to actually bring some metrics to the discussion.
If this sounds like your situation, allow me to suggest a change in strategy. First, sort all those reports that meticulously compare last year to this one toward the back of the deck. Better still, don't even print them out. We're in a whole new ball game now, and you shouldn't waste valuable red ink on slight declines in acquisition growth rates. Besides, the guys in finance probably used it all up printing their reports, and you know that changing toner cartridges can be disastrous.
So, take a deep breath and focus on the bigger picture. If there is one thing that all long-term successful companies have in common, it's a desire to stay ahead of the competition.
If you have been using the online channel effectively and to succeed relative to your industry, you probably can prove it with available benchmarking tools. And if you do convincingly prove your relative performance, you may still come out of your next meeting with some reallocated budget to spend on the email programs, search marketing efforts and social media initiatives that are helping your business grow market share. After all, if you are managing to pull ahead of your competitors that are suffering under the same circumstances, you're doing your job well. And if you've been marketing good old-fashioned widgets like the rest of us -- and not complex derivatives packaged from subprime mortgages for resale to pension funds -- you certainly deserve to keep up the good work.
First, a caveat: Competitive intelligence and benchmarking online require a proper toolset. To really do it right, you'll want access to premier tools like Hitwise, comScore or Nielsen. These tools can help you determine your competitor's spend, sources of traffic and patterns of activity relative to an industry vertical. But, if budgetary approval for such tools seems unlikely, you'll be glad to know that 2008 has been the year that Google has really opened up the kimono on a lot of data -- and it's all free. It may take some inferences and juxtapositions to get the insight you seek, but you can learn a lot from these tools as to where you stand relative to the other guys:
Google Trends for Websites: Use this tool to chart daily unique visitors to your site compared to multiple competitor sites. When you're signed on with a Gmail or other Google log-in, it will display actual volume numbers. You can segment by region or time period and also see what sites or search terms visitors who frequented a site recently used.
Google Media Planner: This is still in beta, but you no longer need an invite. It gives demographic details for site traffic, including breakouts for gender, age, income and education levels, as well as trending data and metrics such as page views, average visits per visitor and average time on site. This will help you answer the question of who is doing a better job of capturing traffic from key target markets and retaining their interest.
Google Insights for Search: This was just released this summer too. You can use it to chart interest for a keyword compared with other keywords, and that is powerful for competitive benchmarking. For example, view trending of interest in your brand versus that of your competitor's brands versus that of keywords of products or services in your category. It also allows you to filter by region and industry category. So, for example, you could compare the relative interest in Marriot versus Hilton in the Northeast versus the Southwest, while easily excluding non-travel related searches like "Paris Hilton."
Here's an advanced tip: The charted search volumes will display as indexes on a 100-point scale. If you want the actual search volumes to which these correspond, export the file to a spreadsheet and then run the keywords through the Google keyword tool, which since this summer also returns the most recent month's actual search volumes. Just plug it in and run the ratio for prior months backwards in your spreadsheet to get the approximate volumes in over time.