Debunking marketing ROI

Oct 09, 2017

A successful marketing campaign is difficult to measure using hard metrics, so don’t get caught in the quicksand of trying to quantify nebulous numbers.

It’s Monday, 9 a.m., and as you get comfortable in an uncomfortable conference chair, one of your firm’s executives says he wants to discuss the return on investment for a recent marketing campaign. At 9 p.m. that night, you should open your home computer and update your resume. If they ask about marketing ROI, then they don’t get it!

I am not trying to destroy the notion that there is a need to apply accountability to marketing efforts, but we do have to recognize that marketing is an investment and not an expense. Using traditional ROI metrics clouds the true value that marketing brings to the table. Avoid falling prey to ROI, one of the most “beloved” buzzwords in the AEC industry. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Time (is rolling on the river). We are not doing a marketing campaign to promote a special package deal on a toilet paper brand that will last a month. Our marketing efforts, even carefully planned and targeted, can take a substantial amount of time to achieve the goal – sometimes it takes years. This is a relationship-based industry. Most of the time, marketing serves to initiate, solidify, and/or maintain those relationships which in turn are the drivers of new opportunities.
  2. People (are strange when you’re a stranger). Procurement is a committee game and as such, multiple “sellers” need to have multiple touches with multiple “buyers.” How do you allocate each touch and track it to a specific result? How do you apply weight factors to different crucial results, such as establishing a contact from a potential client; extending your network within an existing client; getting invited to an invitation-only bid; winning a project in a specific region; or growing your revenue from an existing client by X percent?
  3. Changes (ch-ch-ch-changes). External factors play an important role in the outcome of a pursuit, program, or campaign – economic trends, shifting C-suite executives, natural disasters, socio-political issues, etc. How do you accurately attribute the success or failure of a marketing initiative based solely on controllable factors?
  4. Stuck (in the middle with you). Some firms go down the rabbit hole and inadvertently steer marketing departments’ efforts into working for the ROI instead of laboring toward effectively contributing to successful business outcomes. At the end of the day, do you want to define success by ROI metrics or by business growth? At the risk of oversimplifying the issue, you should measure the ROI on a marketing effort by answering these questions:
    • Did it contribute positively toward achieving the desired goals?
    • Was it consistent with the strategic direction of the firm?
    • Did it improve on past marketing efforts? (internal benchmarking)
    • Did it perform better than similar efforts from other firms? (external benchmarking)

It takes a village and a lot of patience to finally get a great piece of brisket on the table (sorry vegan friends). Every step in the process is valuable and should be studied to improve, or at the very least, maintain consistency, but without losing focus on the simplest fact – that it worked and that it was delicious! Do not lose your mind (and time) with too many ROI specifics because it will turn into quicksand swallowing you whole. Get in front of the issue. Present the results of your marketing efforts before that executive asks for the ROI analysis at the Monday meeting. Did it work? Why? Learn, modify, and move on.

Javier Suarez is the central marketing and sales support manager with Geosyntec Consultants. Contact him at

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.