Predicting where your prospects are online is tricky—and often expensive. And it's not always about where they are but also what are the best ways to reach them.

Your current plethora of agencies will lead with their strengths. If you work with a paid search firm, it will tell you to put a majority of your budget in SEM because it generally has good results. SEO firms will steer you toward their tactic because organic search doesn't have a cost-per-click fee. Your media-buying agency has stacks of demographic information from the big portals to show you that your prospects spend 30 minutes a day reading their content.

How should you decide where to start?

The military has utilized a system called CARVER, a mnemonic term for the weighting factors used to identify and prioritize targets. CARVER helps to discover the greatest opportunities to inflict the most damage while employing the lowest amount of available assets.

CARVER stands for...

  • Criticality
  • Accessibility
  • Recuperability (return-on-investment)
  • Vulnerability
  • Effect
  • Recognizability

For marketing purposes, CARVER can be applied to help determine which digital marketing tactics would work the best to target your prospects with a proper budgetary assignment. So, for this exercise, we're not using it to prioritize the target but, rather, to determine the best "weapon" to reach that target.

Is it exact? No. But CARVER can help throughout your entire marketing cycle from budgeting to planning to optimization. It can allow you to "fire and adjust" from a much stronger starting position.

The "Who" and the "What"

The first step to applying CARVER is a clear understanding of the prospect and what you want the prospect to do—that is, the "who" and the "what."

Prospect personas are a key tool to gain insight into your targeting. Prospect personas differ from customer personas in that customers are already doing business with your company—you should want new customers. However, if your objective is to engage current customers, then customer personas would suffice.

Once you've defined the "who," set an objective around what you want them to do. This objective will be reflected in the marketing messages and calls-to-action, but it will also greatly affect the CARVER scoring when identifying the most effective digital marketing tactics.

Now that the "who" and "what" are defined, you need to identify your assets. According to basic project management, those are money, time, and people; but there are other elements, such as business relationships, social networks, and existing intellectual property or experiences within your organization.

The CARVER Factors

The CARVER factors are graded based on how the prospect engages with a tactic that carries the message payload to achieve the objective. Each factor is assigned a value, based on a five-point scale, with 1 the lowest and 5 the highest.

We implement CARVER by having each member of the strategy team (a minimum of three) fill out a CARVER scorecard. Then, during a team meeting, we compare notes and thoughts to come up with an averaged ranking that is presented to the client. This helps remove subjectivity from the analysis process.

Below is further detail into how to score CARVER for digital marketing tactic use:

Criticality evaluates how critical the tactic is to your prospect in achieving the main goal. For the example of a three-month promotional Web site, a lower priority score would be put on search optimization while a higher score would be awarded to interactive media (i-media), because of the length of the program.

Accessibility examines whether the tactic can truly reach the prospect; also, whether it has timing restrictions to implement based on the timeline, and can be sustained for the duration of the project. Mobile marketing, for example, may not be a good option if you are targeting seniors, as their use of the mobile devices is among the lowest.

Recuperability refers to how quickly the enemy can repair, replace, or bypass the damage to the target. For marketing, this is changed to return on investment (ROI). This doesn't have to be an exact ROI calculation; rather, it should be based on what you expect the return to be. We'd expect i-media may to have a low ROI, while paid search would have a high yield.

Vulnerability focuses on your exposure in the execution of the tactic. Is this something new to your organization? Have you failed to execute this tactic in the past? A lower score would be assigned to a custom widget or RSS feed, for example, if you have never developed and successfully executed those tactics.

Effect is scored on how impactful or prolific the tactic will be at reaching the prospect or in spreading the message. This one can be tricky. A viral video could cause quite a bang, but pay attention to your vulnerability score. I-media might rank high for a branding campaign, but with click-through rates continuing to decline, it may not score high for an online contest run during the summer.

Recognizability takes into account how the tactic or its message might get confused with or lost within other tactics or campaigns. Lately, with the prevalence of spam, email has been receiving low scores in B2C arenas.

CARVER Example

We had a client that had to create cost savings and improve efficiency by replacing a traditional print catalog that it has been using for over 10 years. The objective of the project was to move current customers who have purchased from the print catalog over to a web catalog.

Two personas were developed: one for customers who had a purchase history, and another that focused on customers who have received the catalog but never made a purchase.

With the "who" and "what" defined, we turned to a CARVER approach to evaluate the 16 digital tactics that could apply to this initiative.

Below is what the scoring might look like. Note that these rankings are for illustrative purposes only.

No big surprises, with Web site and e-commerce (in this case direct-to-consumer) being ranked the highest to achieve the main goal of moving the customers online. But with the client a known commodity to the customer, email proves the best tactic for the channel shift. social media and word-of-mouth (combined into one strategy for this initiative) came next in the rankings.

The outcome of this initiative allowed our client to establish a budget that focused on only the key items identified. The justification of the budget was then easier to present to the CFO. Also, it helped mitigate conflicts with internal stakeholders who own tactical agency relationships.


The CARVER approach can help you identify the best digital marketing tactics to reach your prospects or customers. Once deployed, your tactical optimization techniques will allow you to make adjustments throughout the lifecycle of your programs.

Too often, clients get easily swayed by tactic specific vendors trying to sell to the new "shiny object." So regardless of the initial approach, you have to take a holistic approach to digital marketing tactics whether they are large programs or small initiatives.

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J. Woody Meachum is director of digital marketing solutions, Acquity Group