For digital marketers, easy access to data has been a blessing. Trying to figure out what that data means looks to be a curse (for now).
It's hard to agree on social media. While some marketers consider it to be the gold standard of digital, others approach the space with an abundance of caution and skepticism. Like with so many things, however, how you see the value of social media depends on the metrics you use to assess the space. And for many marketers, those metrics are a fight between more numbers, better numbers and personalized numbers. But like many debates, the fight over metrics began almost by accident.
Bant Breen, president of Interpublic Futures Marketing Group, began his panel at the iMedia Breakthrough Summit with a reference to the latest news to hit the social network space, when he asked why AOL had spent $850 million on Bebo, a social network largely unknown outside of the U.K.
According to Joseph Dumont, a partner at Questus, the answer is simple: AOL simply needed to get in the game.
That assessment prompted a similar response from Erin Hunter, EVP at comScore, who said, "AOL needed to either buy a social network or build one; they chose to buy one."
But David Smith, the CEO of Mediasmith, said he was puzzled by AOL's decision.
"I don't really see how it's a game-changer, at least not for the space," Smith said. "Perhaps it's a game-changer for AOL."
According to Smith, AOL's purchase is behind the curve.
"There is going to be a next generation of social networks," Smith said. "That next generation will be one that fully integrates all of your social networks into a single page with everything happening on that page."
While none disagreed with Smith's assessment of the future of social networks, no two panelists could agree on the metrics that will define the space.
"I think measurement companies need to turn their metrics around," Smith said. "The metrics that are out there now are site-centric. I don't care how many people went to Yahoo today; I care how many people engaged with my advertising."
According to Smith, the onus is on companies such as comScore to rethink their measurement tools and shift to what he called a people-centric metric that quantifies users rather than platforms.
But that challenge prompted a rebuttal from Hunter, who said she thought there was too much data out there already.
"I love data, and I'm a numbers geek, but personally I think we've gone too deep into the data," Hunter said. "I don't see how going deeper in terms of data is going to help digital attract the TV ad dollars."
According to Hunter, the solution is to use social networks -- and all other components of digital -- as additional user touch points to get a total picture of media consumption and the effectiveness of marketing.
"If we think about measurement in terms of just digital, then we're just playing within our own little sand box," Hunter said. "I think that we have to back it up, come up with standards and go from there."
But simple standards built on the foundations of traditional marketing metrics miss the point entirely, according to Dumont.
"I've never really looked at TV like I need to follow that medium," Dumont said. "Why are we reinventing our metrics to fit that old model? Just start over."
According to Dumont, the metrics Smith craves are -- to a large extent -- already available through the use of widgets.
"That's real data," Dumont said in reference to his agency's work with widgets. "People have been having these conversations online for a very long time. All that we are doing is listening and getting our hands on what's going on out there."
But Smith, who earlier observed that the vast majority of widgets fail, appeared to doubt Dumont's claim that a widgetized space could answer his fundamental question: are users engaging with ads?
For Smith, the idea of deriving data from sampling -- once a technological necessity -- has become outmoded.
"We've got to change the model," Smith said. "I'm not sure we can ever do enough if we use sampling. Instead, we're going to need to move toward metrics that do a census of what's out there."
For now, digital has numbers in abundance. But what those numbers mean remains unclear.
Michael Estrin is associate editor at iMediaConnection. Read full bio.