Historically, the most popular metric of Web marketing has been traffic. How many visitors come to your Web site each month? How many unique, how many repeat?

This is how the Web grew up, with "hits" as a common denominator across all properties. The more you have, the better you are. Simple math.

Web advertising has been primarily concerned with feeding this engine of growth. The overarching mission of click marketing has been to drive traffic to an organization's Web site. Keep the number of clicks high and the cost-per-click low.

The implicit assumption has been that if you get enough traffic to your site—the right kind of traffic, even more so—then Web advertising has succeeded, and it is now up to your site to take over from there. Because this hand-off is viewed as independent, the teams running the advertising may very well be different from those managing the site.

But that assumption is rapidly evolving.

Demand for traffic on your Web site isn't likely to subside, but that's not necessarily the objective for every online ad campaign anymore.

Increasingly, Web marketing campaigns are measured by leads generated and sales transacted. These metrics have been tracked for a while, but what's remarkable now is the proliferation of end-to-end campaigns that don't drive traffic to the organization's main Web site at all.

These end-to-end campaigns exist as standalone microsites, encapsulating everything relevant to a particular pitch—and nothing more—in a focused presentation for a specific target audience. The yardstick of success is the percentage of conversions.

When you think about it, this is a fascinating divergence of two very different modes of Web marketing: search mode vs. pitch mode.

"Search mode," with a nod to John Battelle's book The Search, is the de facto way in which the Web works. You concentrate on making your site deep, accurate, and usable, and then rely on search engine optimization (SEO), affinity links, and paid keyword search to point to your content in whatever context—at whatever level of granularity—that the user doing the search finds relevant.

The user is empowered in search mode. Your mission is to give users as much access as they want, facilitating open-ended "go-anywhere-from-anywhere" navigation throughout your site. The users have the freedom to assemble whatever pieces they want, in whatever order they want, and then introduce themselves to you as a prospect or customer only if and when they think it's valuable. This is the great power of Internet search.

But with great power comes great responsibility, and in this mode the responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of the users to sell themselves on the best solution and to decide the next steps to take. That works beautifully for many products and services, but not all. There are many scenarios—particularly with complex, high-end, or innovative products and services—where it can be confusing and inefficient.

In search mode, since the flow is largely out of your hands, visits to your site is as good a metric as any to gauge market appeal and estimate its origin.

"Pitch mode," in contrast, takes people who respond to an ad and channels them down an intentionally narrow path. The marketer is in the driver's seat, crafting a presentation that the user sees one screen at a time, usually in a linear sequence. The choices are limited at each step and primarily serve to identify the most relevant needs and characteristics of the respondent so that subsequent pages in the pitch can be tailored accordingly. Everything drives to a conversion event, typically to acquire the respondent's contact information.

This is a reincarnation of classic direct marketing, genetically enhanced to adapt in real time to each respondent in a dynamic Web environment.

An interesting aspect of pitch mode is that the ad that initiates the click can have a much tighter connection with the post-click marketing path that follows. The ad is essentially the first step of the pitch, and what follows can—and should—be a seamless experience.

Although hits matter in pitch mode, since they give you a sense of how well your ads and their placements are pulling, the real metric to watch is your conversion rate. Better yet, if you segment respondents based on their choices along the path, you can also measure the segmentation rate and the relative conversion rate within each segment. This can be much more accurate and enlightening than traditional traffic analysis.

Pitch mode doesn't necessarily eliminate search mode. In many situations, users will still prefer the freedom of browsing on their own terms. But when it's time to make a solid pitch in a Web marketing campaign, both the marketer and the respondent can appreciate a little more structure.

Traffic is good, but ultimately it's all about conversion.

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image of Scott Brinker

Scott Brinker is co-founder and CTO of ion interactive, a provider of landing-page management software and conversion-optimization services. He also writes a blog on marketing technology called Chief Marketing Technologist.

Twitter: @chiefmartec.