Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.
John Wanamaker(attributed)
US department store merchant (1838 – 1922)

I’ve been involved in a number of organisations that at one time or another have done ‘value for money’ exercises.  To cut a long story short, I usually have issues with this because, frankly, I don’t think value for money exists:  It is a abstract concept that exists in people minds – rather like ‘the perfect lasagne’ or a ‘brilliant restaurant’.  Paradoxically, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. People have – and should have – very clear and strong ideas about their applications and projects and their relative worth. If they want to describe this as ‘Value for Money’, fine. The problem is that it is difficult to demonstrate it for sure. Like “Tescos’s is better value than Sainsbury’s” (something I’ve heard people have passionate debates about), you’ll never prove it. It’s just instinct im afraid.

We live in a world where people seem to expect absolute certainty and think that everything can be turned into a science: The idea that you might be developing something on the back of instinct and passion rather than a formula the finance people can work out with a calculator will sit uncomfortably with some, but that is the reality – benefits of technology are often intangible and unpredicable.  Get over it.

An example of this came to mind when I was at an event run by a large UK department store many years ago. The web was in it’s infancy and my company (me, really) had done some work developing their first web site. Later, they had added ordering facilities for a selection of their products.

I got talking to a lady that turned out to be very senior in the Marketing area of the organsiation.  Very briefly, she was moaning that although they had invested alot of money into the site (much to my annoyance they had done most of this through a rival company), there didn’t seem to be much evidence that it was generating sales:  The site itself seemed to get alot of hits but the rate of ‘conversions’ (turning these into sales transactions) was quite low.  Overall sales for the company as a whole were doing OK though, but there was pressure to consider the web investment and perhaps even drastically cut it back.  She was dissapointed with what was happening and asked me for my opinion.

“Isn’t it obvious what is happening?” I said.  Silence, shrugged shoulders.  ”People are going to the site, looking up product information and stock details and then going into the shop to buy it” I said.  ”I probably would”. I continued “so the site is doing a valuable job and providing a service (and a return) but not in a way that anyone intended”.

“Interesting” she said.  ”I hadn’t thought of that – how do we prove it?”.  I explained that you can’t and I suppose if I had really wanted to be clever I could I could have quoted John Wannamaker above who famously said “half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, the trouble is don’t know which half”: It’s probably best I didn’t – I always thought it was Lord Lever that said it.

The marketing lady got another glass of red wine and changed the subject.

« »