Is Organic Web Traffic a Predictor of Brand Choice? – A Closer Look at Les Binet’s “New Way”

Posted 04 Nov 2020
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Les Binet would like marketers to discontinue the old ways of brand health measurement and adopt his “new way to track brand and advertising.” Binet contends that the one metric we need to measure is share of organic searches. I am certain that more than a few of us are feeling a nauseating NPS related déjà vu. Recall Reichheld of Bain & Company came up with the same prognosis in his ‘The One Number You Need to Grow’ manifesto.

Binet begins (see link below) with the obligatory criticism of marketing research (right out of Reichheld’s playbook). Paradoxically, he quotes former market researcher and adman, the late David Ogilvy. David Ogilvy attributed the greatest influence in his professional life to market researchers and was remembered for quotes such as “Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals.” Binet opens by disclosing that he has always been sceptical of survey data. Hardly an objective framing for his criticism of survey-based brand measurement.

The Ogilvy quote Binet cites is, “The trouble with market research is that people don’t think what they feel, they don’t say what they think, and they don’t do what they say.”

The brilliant David Ogilvy’s thinking predated neuroscience. Indeed, the first neuroscience symposium was not until 1995. Today, it is well understood that for mundane aspects of life like advertising consumption, people simply do not have cognitive access to the non-conscious emotions or feelings elicited by advertising. Ogilvy was right – people don’t think what they feel. What is also widely understood amongst the market research fraternity is that stated behaviour is a poor substitute for inferred behaviour. People might not do what they say, however, they do what modelling infers at a category, brand, segment and increasingly, individual level.

As for the substantive claim that share of searches is a “causal” predictor, I think Binet may have inadvertently misused the term, causality. It may be that share of searches is a leading indicator of for example, car purchases – incidentally, so too is car dealership foot traffic. But to say it is causal is surprising. Binet bases the claim of causality on the fact that share of searches is a leading indicator of market share. He then makes the concession that “the way that interest in a brand converts to actual sales is modulated by other factors.” Indeed! – Those ‘other factors’ such as price competitiveness and quality attributes are captured by survey-based brand measurement. Binet has omitted this fact, and as such advocates for what is only a partial and inferior substitute for survey-based brand measurement.

The mere act of searching is not causal. Rather, understanding what drove the prospect to search and then, what the prospect discovered in their search that led them to progress towards purchase is causal. Generally, people are in the market for a car and therefore search. Not, search and then, are in the market for a car.

Leading indicators, correlations and claims of causation bring to mind the Cuban National Commission for Havana Tobacco that once noted that since the discovery of the tobacco plant the human life span had doubled.

Forethought’s Prophecy Thoughts & Feelings is a causal model that produces predictors of in-market behaviour but does so by examining the relative performance on the causal emotional and rational drivers of choice. You will find our work cited in tier-one academic journals and applied by leading, share-gaining brands.

Share of searches might be a “useful” leading indicator but if you want to know how to change the trajectory of the brand, may I suggest you refer to your survey-based brand measurement.

Les Binet’s ‘new way’ may be found here.

Ken Roberts, Chairman Forethought