Measuring ROI - the real digital divide (business reality against practitioners' theory)

By Glen Bowman

Aside being a beta junky (please leave a message if you are launching anything, any time soon), I'm addicted to LinkedIn discussions. I cannot resist butting in when somebody makes unrealistic, pompous, half-baked or old-hat assumptions about digital marketing. 

Yes, I love reading US, up-to-the-minute industry newsletters but often there is a big divide between theory and practice or, more to the point, what you should be doing and the budget/time you have. Mind the budget gap!

For me it's a given that for small businesses you can do internet marketing using free tools. But what about ROI, that slippery, hard-to-measure bane of any digital pro's life? Well, if you have zero budget for fancy tools, you use Google analytics to monitor visitors and Google Trends/Adwords Tool for keywords (for the website, blog posts and campaigns). 

You might well ask, yes, but what do you do? I help a customer to rank organically, do some targeted social media, use a few new free tools (beta commitment always pays off) then I ask the client if sales have gone up. 

A high Google ranking is useless if it doesn't convert into sales. So that's how I measure ROI for small businesses: I find out how many visitors have visited the website and then ask the client for sales figures. Of course it might not work out, but it's rare that you don't net any sales at all. And if sales are disappointingly low, you better have a quick, backup plan or the client will do some simple comparative maths and walk away (i.e. sales versus your fee).

Digital marketing on a shoestring

I come from a content marketing perspective and to me you write good copy that attracts customers, find the customers, engage them and get the sales. I used to work for huge brands with lots of money to throw into marketing activities, but when I'm managing the whole process for a small business, I have to roll my sleeves up and do what I can with a very small budget. 

But that's fine, because that's my personal journey. I set up my own website and ranked it all by myself. I built my own reputation from zilch, so I can do this again and again.

Simples as the meerkat said. But not really simple if the client gives you very little time. All this A/B testing people are raving about is time consuming and most clients want to see results pretty quickly, they are not impressed if you take a guru stance and ask for 6 months to calibrate the campaign, you are lucky if you get 3. 

One of my clients wanted a monthly report, which is a pretty tough call if they have just hired you and they have done zero social media beforehand. So you do your best, scratch your head, use any resources you can think of and try to educate your client so they can actually follow what you are doing, which might buy you a bit of time and some respect/empathy. 

But it might not work and you have to use all the knowledge you have and some to pull a rabbit out of the SEO hat (an ethical, white hat, of course). And it never stops, because Google is relentlessly changing ranking criteria. You need to keep learning or you are obsolete in a matter of weeks. Which is fine by me - internet addict and compulsive learner rolled into one small package.

Sometimes I'm allowed to use paid tools, but what if they don't perform? When the editor of an email marketing system refused to work for several days, I had to design email marketing campaigns by rewriting a template's html code. Which is pretty tedious, but brings me back full circle because that's how I designed my professional website in 2008 and before that, that's how I used to manage my fun London Cheapskate website in 2001.

So the susila of this tale is that reality is very distant from digital theory. Unless you work for 'moneybags', you'd better work out which free tools can help you do your job.

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