One of the ironies of the one-to-one Internet is that it's practically impossible to measure the impact of online marketing offline.
While it's easy to figure out whether someone bought a book online after seeing an ad for Barnes & Noble, it's another thing to track whether someone went to an actual bookstore to buy a book after seeing an online ad.
That's the dilemma facing Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. Rather than cannibalize its sales force by selling insurance or financial products online, the Internet pioneer (it was one of Agency.com's first clients back in 1995) has built a site whose purpose is to connect consumers with local MetLife agents.
But when it comes to online advertising, MetLife has had no way of knowing whether someone who saw a banner ended up buying insurance.
Now it believes it does. As part of a yearlong sponsorship of Microsoft Corp.'s Sidewalk local guides, MetLife is testing software that helps it track a consumer from the time he clicks an ad to the day he signs up for an IRA in a MetLife office.
`GET OUT OF CYBERSPACE'
That, for MetLife, is the sign of success on the Internet. Not click-throughs or online sales. Actionable leads sent to traditional storefront salespeople.
"We've got to get people in front of sales reps," said Neal Zamore, MetLife's director of interactive commerce. "You've got to get out of cyberspace as soon as possible."
I spoke to MetLife more than two months after the Sidewalk sponsorship began. Like most Internet ventures, the program has had its ups and downs, and in many ways is still in the nascent stage. But if it succeeds, it will demonstrate the power of the Net to drive consumers to local businesses.
Though it's an Internet vet, MetLife is hardly an aggressive online marketer. The company spent the same amount -- $500,000 -- on online media buys in 1997 and 1998. It advertises on well-known portals such as Infoseek and Lycos.
Marketing VP Shailendra Ghorpade calls the Internet "an exciting new medium for us to have a dialogue with consumers" and, at a time when e-commerce is all the rage, staunchly refuses to consider selling insurance online.
That's not to say MetLife isn't smart about online marketing. Between 1997 and 1998, it tripled the number of sales leads it generated online simply by tweaking its site to better manage the 600,000 unique visitors who go there each month. MetLife says 12% of people who make online appointment requests become new paying customers.
UNITS HANDLE INTERNET PROGRAMS
Although there's an undisclosed corporate budget to maintain MetLife.com, individual business units are responsible for funding their own Internet programs.
MetLife launched its Sidewalk sponsorship in October, the month the site morphed from an arts and entertainment guide to a national consumer buying guide in more than 70 markets.
CATCHING CONSUMERS' INTEREST
The idea is to catch consumers' interest in a variety of ways. MetLife banners beckon from the tops of pages. Brightly colored listings in the directory link to MetLife's site. Small square ads appear on the right sides of pages that display results of a search for "life insurance" and other related keywords. The ad buy amounted to "much less" than $1 million, MetLife officials say.
Clicking on an ad or a directory listing leads to the MetLife site and an opportunity to fill out an online request to meet with a local MetLife agent.
What MetLife bought is "the opportunity to localize their advertising across 73 markets," said Peter Atkins, Sidewalk general manager of ad sales and marketing. It's also getting access to more eyeballs: Sidewalk got 3 million unique users in November, Mr. Atkins said, more than double the 1.2 million per month it was averaging before it relaunched.
Though that's a tremendous opportunity, it comes with a significant drawback: An online Yellow Pages is still an eye-glazing thing to use. Search for "life insurance" in Seattle, for example, and you get 36 pages containing 718 listings. Unless you sort the list by advertiser or by alphabet, it's a long way to a MetLife agent's listing.
TOUGH TO STAND OUT FROM CLUTTER
Directory pages carry four ad banners for national and local retailers. Sidewalk now has more than 7,000 advertisers nationwide. It's difficult for a company to stand out in that kind of clutter.
Perhaps as a result, the first two months of the sponsorship have resulted in just 14,422 click-throughs, a rate of 0.31%. MetLife says it's not disappointed; it expects to reach its target (a decidedly conservative 1%) when it develops more of a promotional presence on Sidewalk.
The other piece of the puzzle -- tracking whether those click-throughs resulted in sales -- is just getting off the ground this month. Using software from interactive agency i33 Communications, New York (also Advertising Age's Web agency), MetLife can attach a unique tag to each banner ad and directory listing. So when someone clicks on a banner in Sidewalk New York and requests a meeting with an agent, MetLife can track whether he ended up buying insurance, and trace the results all the way back to the initial ad view.
PROVING ONLINE SUCCESS
MetLife believes tracking this activity is essential to proving the success of online marketing. Each new MetLife marketing venture -- whether online or off -- must result in at least a 15% return on investment to be deemed successful, Mr. Ghorpade said. A 1% click-through rate, and the sales leads that result, will put the initiative well beyond that 15% benchmark, Mr. Zamore said.
For MetLife to truly succeed, it will need to reconsider selling its products on the Net. The company is trying out two insurance sites, InsWeb and InsureMarket, that enable consumers to comparison shop. While other participating insurance providers offer price quotes online or by e-mail, MetLife forces consumers to wait for an agent to call. It stands to lose a lot of business that way.
It's probably only a matter of time before MetLife sells online. In the meantime, its end-to-end solution on Sidewalk is one step toward finding a real, accountable way to measure return on online investments.
Debra Aho Williamson is a Seattle-based writer focusing on Internet business issues. Send Internet case study ideas to her at firstname.lastname@example.org,