I read two articles over the weekend that both relate to challenges of measuring the popularity and impact of marketing activities online.

A recent New York Times report on the annual conference of the Association of National Advertisers – apparently a very big shindig for the ad community in the U.S. – notes that the topic du jour was consumer behavior as the guiding star of effective marketing. There was violent agreement among speakers, apparently, that basing marketing pitches on consumer behaviors – as opposed to attitudes or perceptions – was the right approach. Behaviorial targeting is in, and demographic pitches and opinion surveys are out. Of course, one of the inherent advantages of the Web is the ability to track consumer behavior online in minute detail – all the way down to individual customer purchase history and site visits. So companies left and right are now trying to read the data to make their marketing pitch more immediate and relevant. That’s good news for consumers, I would think. The more you know me the better chance you have of being relevant and credible.

For a different twist on the same topic, check out this post by the Bivings Report on a recent PR conference on measurement. Now I’m the first to admit I am quite cynical about PR conferences in general and read their output with a grain (rock?) of salt the size of a small car – largely for their propensity to solve all the PR world’s problems in 3-step plans or magic bullets…for a small fee. But what caught my eye here is the discussion on how to measure the impact of blogs and other consumer-generated media. The consensus: there is no definitive formula (yet) that will provide hard evidence of impact. But at least they are talking about it. I think Chuck Fitzpatrick of the Bivings Group hits the nail on the head when he says “the whole point of social media is the conversations it creates, which are hard to measure at all.” Bingo! At some point, we need to acknowledge that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to capture the nebulous impact of thousands of online discussions and individual contacts. But hasn’t that always been the case with off-line efforts? How much is it worth for a company employee to defuse a weekend BBQ debate on faulty customer service? Or for service reps to smile at folks when they enter the store? Or to provide exemplary service over the phone? At some point we need to accept on the basis of logic and faith there is a strong relationship between how a company acts with its customers and partners (individually and collectively, online and in person) and the popularity and success of that company. I’ve witnessed some pretty effective tracking that can measure the scope and tonality of online posts, tabulate a company’s outreach efforts and ultimately try to link that back to an increase in brand reputation and product sales. But it’s not a perfect science, and likely never will be. That should not stop companies from doing the right thing – one customer at a time.