One issue centers on the range of metrics that constitutes success. Is it page views, contest entries, leads, sales or repeat visits? "Stickiness" (visit duration) or frequency? Or something bigger, such as contribution to brand value or customer value, however that is defined?
For online-only businesses such as Amazon.com and Preview Travel, no amount of brand building would compensate these businesses long-term if sales dropped precipitously.
And for traditional marketers that are venturing into e-commerce as an additional channel or as a way to reduce selling costs, is it enough to measure return on investment by the revenue generated?
What about brand preference, driving sales to retail and database building?
The larger issue is actually more about the importance of building both brand value and customer value than it is about proving ROI today.
BRANDS IN FLUX
In fact, the very nature of brands is changing. In the past, we have defined a brand and its identity by its imagery, voice and product attributes.
Today, brands are being further defined online by their "e-dentity," the way they engage users, animate and how they sound. This interactivity and broader experience is enabling brands to claim a larger share-of-heart, not just share-of-wallet.
Take books as an example. When you think about your early associations with books, many images come to mind, from milk and cookies to sharing favorites with friends to reading in a cozy chair.
But when you think about brands, the best you can probably do is "Nancy Drew," "The Hardy Boys" or your local bookstore or library.
What Barnes & Noble did in the physical world was bring you the book and the milk and cookies, creating a strong brand association wedded to the experience of reading and books.
The brilliance of Amazon.com was in taking this bigger world of book experience/reading/exploring and executing it in cyberspace, first and best.
MORE THAN BUYING
Purchasing books becomes only a part of the experience, and each visit need not culminate in a sale. Amazon.com has built an online community of loyal users. It is then possible to sell these loyal visitors and buyers other merchandise, say music, and offer them to advertisers as a valuable target.
WHAT IS STARBUCKS SELLING?
The challenge for brands going online is to define and build their brand value and customer value in this larger context. Is Starbucks selling coffee or camaraderie or comfort? Is Gillette, a Think New Ideas client, about razors or grooming? Research with the target audience helps marketers understand how broadly the target audience will allow a brand to express itself.
And advertisers are finding that online brands not only can, but are expected to deliver more than the product.
More information. More service. More relevance. The Web has enabled marketers to create an experience online, thus enlarging the brand. In executing against this, we cannot help but create stronger, more valuable customer relationships, delivering long-term ROI. And we must measure that over time, not in a single visit.
Susan D. Goodman is exec VP-marketing and strategic planning and co-founder, Think New Ideas, New York, and can be reached at (email@example.com).