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How to Measure Brand Awareness for Startups

Measuring Brand Awareness for Startups

Several weeks ago, I got engaged in a discussion on LinkedIn about “favourite” vanity metrics, led by Ben Yoskovitz, Founding Partner at Highline Beta. I had responded with a bit of a teasing comment:

“I once worked with a team that was constantly reporting that sentiment for the brand was on a major incline. Except it weirdly didn't ever correlate with sales or social growth or partnerships or retail or email activity or literally anything but their own reporting.”

It got the two of us talking about how companies measure “brand awareness” and how much of that is vanity or valuable. He had some questions, and you know your girl had opinions.

BY: How do you measure brand awareness properly so it's not vanity?

JC: It's really challenging to measure brand awareness for early stage brands, so we cobble together metrics as we're able to. I like to think of awareness as a spectrum, from vaguely aware (i.e. reached) to actively aware.

Most brands do measure some form of brand awareness, but it’s often vanity. You can buy followers, likes, comments. Everything is for sale, which is why you often see insanely low conversion rates. Brand teams or agencies are purchasing these social media bumps on the front end-not necessarily in bad faith-but to create a more immediate line to brand credibility when a prospect lands on a social feed. People do trust brands with 10k followers more than a brand with 25 followers, whether or not those 10k people are real.

Ultimately I do think you have to properly measure brand awareness first, and then focus on measuring various micro-conversions. If you’re building brand awareness but focused on measuring conversion-related metrics you’ll be disappointed.

A few of the techniques we combine to recognize whether brand awareness is shifting include:

  • Direct channel traffic: When people are populating your URL directly into Chrome, they definitely know you exist. If you monitor this channel's growth, you can use it as a reference point for brand awareness.
  • Search volume: When people search your brand name or recent campaigns directly, they know you exist. Keep an eye on Google Search Console and monitor trends here.
  • Advertising engagement: Reach is a rough reference point and heavily impacted by spend without a real sense of whether or not the reached recipient had any recollection of the brand. Video view-throughs (targeting ~25% video completion) and clicks to site give us a more reasonable, IMO, reference point to awareness.
  • Social engagement: It's really easy to “fake up” total followers, and while reach is helpful, I'd say it's a super tricky one to treat as an awareness metric (though useful for other reasons). The ratio of accounts engaged/accounts reached is a potentially more interesting metric for understanding awareness in social, because it gives you a sense of how many people actually saw the brand content you produced and had a response to it. Sentiment also matters on the social side - if the engagement is up because people are complaining, that obviously isn't an improvement in brand awareness. When your entire team starts commenting constantly on your posts, that creates a false narrative as well. With social media it's super important to monitor and understand the results being reported.

Brand owners need to keep a close eye on whether metrics like increased social activity convert over to actual micro-conversions. For example, we'll do things like run regular content in social channels to get followers to join email lists or engage with landing pages. If we can't generate these micro-conversion, I assume much of what's happening in-channel is vanity-driven and I wouldn't rely on it to be part of a proper conversion funnel.

Another thing I see is more traditional campaigns generating a ton of views on sites like YouTube, followed by minimal traffic to site. In these cases, again, someone can make a case for increased awareness, but if, within 30 days, you're seeing negligible movement in site metrics like direct traffic or organic search, then it's unlikely that it had a lasting impact on awareness.

How do you balance building brand and optimizing conversion later in the funnel?

In my experience, it's as critical to build awareness as it is to drive conversion - the funnel is wider at the top and if you're not filling it, you wind up with a weak lower funnel and a bloated CAC.

We often see digital marketers looking at the funnel on an audience basis - i.e. top of funnel is cold audience, bottom of funnel is hot audience, but both are set up with a conversion objective. I prefer to design plans on a marketing objectives basis. At the top of the funnel, your objective is awareness and you're trying to drive reach, clicks, and views - not immediate conversion. What ends up happening to early stage brands that take the conversion-objective-for-all approach is a fast-bloating CAC (marketing objective top of funnel clicks cost much less than conversion objective top of funnel clicks).

An additional thing I like to do, particularly on the digital advertising side of things, is to break out budgets that are intended to drive awareness. A lot of the time, brands are pushing their agencies to optimize for ROAS and conversion exclusively. The thing is, awareness work will not do that - and it puts their agency partners in a challenging position, since generating awareness campaigns will absolutely drive ROAS down. I have found that when you break out the awareness budgets and treat them not as conversion efforts but as overall brand efforts, with KPIs that aren’t conversion driven, you’re able to more accurately consider and build awareness activity without it giving the illusion of pulling down overall digital marketing ROAS performance.. I actually have a tool in beta right now that automates this process, because it’s super challenging to do manually with the platforms as they exist, but is so important.

What's the biggest mistake you see people make with brand awareness?

Something I think got heavily pushed during the heyday of Facebook ads was the idea that ads could be the primary driver of everything from awareness to conversion. When Facebook was cheap and cheerful, sure, this was a relatively easy thing to hack and tons of brands leveraged this super successfully.

However, this isn't the heyday of Facebook ads anymore. While, yes, advertising has always played a part in most marketing strategies, being over-indexed on paid advertising - with a relentless focus on unnatural, immediate conversion - and underdeveloped on all other channels - that are designed to create awareness and build a customer journey - has created a P&L mess for a lot of brands as the cost of paid shifted upwards throughout the last year.

Read more on Ben's deep dive into metrics over at his newsletter, Focused Chaos.

Jacquelyn Corbett, MBA

Brand builder, brady buncher, mathemagician. Fractional CMO, educator, trainer. Feminist AF. 25 years in startup mode.


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