Is Digital Really Low Return? Marketing Advisory Board Weighs In

Blog Post
September 27, 2017

According to a recent forecast on, spending on digital will see double-digit growth at a rate increasing from $83 billion in 2017 to $129.23 billion in 2021. This follows on the heels of digital spending passing TV for the first time in 2016. However, in having to up their focus on commitment to budget and resources, some marketers are beginning to worry about the return on investment (ROI) on digital marketing. Additional questions regarding click fraud and bots only add to their concerns.

With major companies like Procter & Gamble pulling $100 million from their digital ad spend, the Harte Hanks Marketing Advisory Board looked at the question of return on digital marketing. They were ultimately posed with the specific query: Does digital actually have a low return, or do we have an attribution problem?

Using both personal experience and specific examples, the Advisory Board members explore the answer.

Have a Strategy

Ken Bernhardt, Regents Professor of Marketing Emeritus, Georgia, states that the medium isn’t what’s critical—it’s about matching the medium to the audience with the right message targeted at the right market. A lot of companies are chasing digital because digital is hot, but doing so without the right strategy and the right message. With this approach, there’s no reason to believe you will be successful.

Check for Synergy

Here, Scott Neslin, Professor of Marketing at Dartmouth, states that if you’re finding that your own digital is low return, you need to look at two factors: saturation and synergy. Saturation occurs when an idea works, but is ultimately overused, frustrating and driving away customers. The result is a decline in sales. He notes though, to be aware of synergy: your digital could be boosting your responses in other areas, and you just haven’t connected the dots yet. Digital often gets compartmentalized—you should look at the larger picture. For example, Scott mentions an example of advertising on Facebook for a mobile app. The ads didn't appear to be paying out, but it turns out that they were contributing to a higher rank in the app store.

Don't Chase Perfect Attribution

Aaron Chestnut, CMO of First Tennessee Bank, explains that attribution is a great goal, but you shouldn't chase perfect attribution because you risk spending too much time and energy on it, which weighs down your ROI.