SOCIAL SOOTHSAYER: Jason Harper of digital ad agency Organic Inc. explains how his “Velocity and Acceleration” model helped predict sales results for a Kotex campaign. Credit: Technology Review
MIT Technology Review’s Evan I. Schwartz reports on how Organic is using Twitter and Facebook to forecast sales of everything from cars to tampons. (http://www.technologyreview.com/business
What’s social media good for? Marketers see it as a new way to engage with consumers. Economist-turned-advertising executive Jason Harper sees an additional function: as a real-time laboratory for measuring how multi-million dollar ad campaigns are succeeding or failing to drive product sales.
Armed with a masters degree in applied economics, Harper was hired three years ago, at age 30, by the Detroit office of Organic Inc., a leading digital ad agency, to crunch the ad campaign data of car companies — with the goal of seeing whether digital marketing efforts were helping move vehicles off lots. Assigned to Chrysler’s Jeep and Dodge Ram truck accounts, Harper had to figure out how to correlate whether TV commercials were driving website visits, Twitter conversation and Facebook brand page activity. He also had to calculate whether all that online activity was leading to an increase in test drives at dealerships. “The biggest question with social media is ‘what’s the value?’” he says.
Instead of waiting to measure the value of social media after the marketing campaign was over–akin to looking in a rear-view mirror–he saw a way of using social media as a windshield to foresee turns in the road ahead, to predict whether a campaign was on target to meet sales objectives. The new approach caught the attention of Harper’s new boss. “We needed some predictive tools,” says Steve Kerho, senior vice president of analytics. “To hit [Chrysler's] sales objectives, we needed to see this many site visitors, this many key activities, this many scheduled test drives.”
To gauge the predictive powers of tweets and Facebook sign-ups, Harper borrowed the concepts of velocity and acceleration from the world of physics. To come up with those numbers, Harper had to collect data during three phases of a campaign: the baseline, or the number of Tweets or Facebook fans before an ad campaign starts; The Hot Zone, or the main surge of activity during the campaign, and the Fallout, the inevitable decline when the campaign is finished.
Under Harper’s model, which he calls Velocity & Acceleration, the idea is to constantly measure the number of related tweets, blog mentions, and Facebook fan sign-ups during the campaign. By using calculus to compute the velocity, or rate of change, of the tweets and sign-ups, Harper can easily compute any acceleration, the rate of change of velocity over time. Using these two metrics, Harper says he can predict whether a mass marketing campaign will reach its overall goals within the first few days it begins running. The resulting curve typically takes a steep upward slope before leveling off, a pattern known in the industry as “the kick-ass curve.” Says Harper: “The idea is to predict the height of the plateau.”
The model came about during his work for Chrysler. Harper homed in on how Jeep’s TV commercials were driving traffic to the “Jeep Experience” website as well as the rate at which the website was triggering signup’s to Jeep’s fan page on Facebook. Then he tried to see if the social media activity had any effect on the number of test drives. Using statistical analysis software from SAS Institute, Harper came up with a correlation: that consumers who engaged with one of Jeep’s online touch points were about twice as likely to schedule a test drive at a dealership. Since the auto industry is so focused around increasing test drives as way to reliably boost cars sales, this was a promising start.
He put the idea into action during the first week of the Ram truck campaign, when the predictions looked dire. “We weren’t getting the numbers,” Harper says. “Truck sales weren’t going to be where we needed them.” Harper suggested something simple, that Chrysler change its TV commercials to increase the time on screen that the website address was displayed. It worked. “They were able to increase that call to action on and we started tracking to our goals within a couple of weeks.” However, in early 2010, Chrysler completed a previously-planned switched to a different agency, ending Harper’s work for the client.
But Harper was already running his experiments using an even richer set of social media data from an entirely different client. Kimberly Clark, the Dallas-based personal care products company, was launching a major campaign for U by Kotex, a new tampon product that would bring the discussion of feminine hygiene into the social media age. The goal of the campaign was to get five million young women to request samples of the new product.
The TV commercials used humor not only to provoke people into talking about periods and tampons in a more honest way; the spots also poked fun at the absurd way that Kotex itself advertised its products in the past. An edgy series of video vignettes on its site and on YouTube went even further. One candid camera-style video in a drug store featured a clueless guy asking a series of random shoppers advice on which product he should get for his girlfriend. Product placements on the TV shows of Tyra Banks, Chelsea Handler and the Kardashian sisters reinforced this more open way of talking about previously taboo subjects. As some of these video segments went viral, the campaign drove surges of tweets on Twitter as well as brand page signups on Facebook.
Under Harper’s Velocity and Accelerate model, there were numerous Hot Zones of social data resulting from each of these media events that were put into immediate effect to forecast future sales. “Organic’s Velocity and Acceleration model helped us project the plateau level of Tweets following the U by Kotex launch,” says Aida Flick, the Kotex brand director at Kimberly-Clark. “From there, we were able to tie in the relationship between the Tweets and the sample requests.”
The model helped Kimberly Clark optimize its media spending, product placement and website features in real time, in an effort to reach its ambitious goal. The tool also helped guide on-the-fly changes to the creative. Through experimentation, for instance, it was determined that a green and black color scheme for web pages drove the most sample requests, as did a stronger call to action for visitors to locate the nearest store.
These efforts yielded sale forecasts that turned out to be correct. “Thanks to the model,” says Flick, “we knew within weeks that we were on track to exceed our sales goals and deliver a 10 percent incremental market share gain to the Kotex brand.”
In this case, Harper admits, the results were never in doubt. The creative for the Kotex campaign was so strong “that we were forecasting ahead of target right at launch.” Now Organic’s VP of marketing intelligence, Harper has moved on to apply his model to the launch of a line of prepared meals, for a global packaged foods company, with the hope that the campaign will provoke enough social network conversation to keep his model well fed.