BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- Tracking the effectiveness of advertising on the web was hard enough. Tracking it in the era of "walled gardens" could become that much tougher.
The rapid shift of web audiences and marketer attention toward closely controlled properties such as Facebook or Apple's iAd platform is presenting a growing challenge for web analytics. Nearly a quarter of online time at the PC is now spent with social media, the lion's share of that on Facebook, according to Nielsen Co.
With more of marketers' "owned" media -- i.e. their online relationship marketing programs -- now hosted within Facebook, that only becomes a bigger challenge. "A number of companies have invested heavily in their analytics platforms over the past five years," said Michael Stich, group director of strategic planning for Bridge Worldwide. "They've spent lot of money on reporting and scorecards. This really does put a black hole in the middle of those scorecards."
By far the biggest issue, because it has by far the biggest and most diverse audience, is Facebook, which now counts a quarter of the world's internet users as members and more than 40% of the total U.S. population as monthly visitors, per Compete.com.
"Attribution analysis," or determining which of numerous digital media gets credit for a sale or a targeted behavior when the same person has been exposed to many ads and offers, is hard with Facebook because the site limits the data it will share, Mr. Stich said.
Facebook did this spring unveil an improved -- and free -- Insights program with more demographic data about pages' fans. But it still doesn't offer the range of analytics marketers are used to for their own websites or email programs.
A Facebook fan, whatever the count, isn't the same thing as a website visitor, said Hemen Patel, president of CRM Metrix, which handles web analytics for such marketers as Procter & Gamble Co. and Coca-Cola. Nor is a Facebook fan page really free, he said.
"Even though the platform may be free, the agency is charging $250,000 to $300,000 to maintain it," he said. "Then we see figures like 300,000 fans, but only 300 do anything actively. ... The question becomes am I really going to sell $1,000 worth of Tide to this one person over a lifetime?"
The numbers of active fans may be low, but both Facebook and marketers are focusing more on the passive aspect of fanhood -- receiving news and status updates from brands -- Mr. Stich said. Surveying those fans on pre- and post-exposure purchase intent or behavior can help solve some of the analytics issue, he said.
Mr. Patel said Coke and others are starting to survey fans on Facebook about such things as how much Coke they drank when they first became fans vs. later over time. That can eventually allow marketers to determine how much it's worth to spend per fan on Facebook programs, he said.
But just knowing how many fans truly read a brand's status updates -- and when -- is tricky. "Right now, people are arguing that everyone who's a fan gets these updates, and therefore it counts as an impression," Mr. Stich said. "I don't necessarily agree, because not everyone reads every single update."
He suggests "backing into" a number by putting clickable links into messages, measuring clicks and creating an audience estimate based on standard click-through rates. It leaves a lot to be desired, however, compared to measuring the sales impact of brand email programs, which often is possible through marketing mix modeling, according to Gregg Ambach, managing director of Analytic Partners, Cincinnati, a marketing analytics firm.
"When I send out an e-mail blast," he said, "I know how many people opened it and when. I know how many people clicked through if there was something to click through to. There are just far more touch points [than with Facebook newsfeeds] that get me closer" to analyzing sales impact.
For all the data challenges, it's hard to beat the cost or the access to a huge shopper base, many of them on mobile devices, said Rich Lesperance, director of online marketing for Walgreens.
"What they've done for brands has been phenomenal," he said. "It's hard to complain that their metrics aren't good enough when in this world you get what you pay for."