Sustainability Without Metrics

If you want to understand how major brands think about sustainability; if you want to join a community of professionals who are working to make major brands sustainability leaders; if you want to be inspired by leaders who make money while making positive social change, next year you should come to Sustainable Brands, a unique annual event produced by Sustainable Life Media.

I was there last week to present some of my recent research and moderate a panel of sustainability researchers and I will tell you that it was the most relevant, most inspiring business event I’ve been to in years. In the halls of the conference center and at dinner I had dozens of interesting conversations. Today I want to write about one of them.

I was speaking with a marketer working for the University of Phoenix, the for-profit university known for carpet bombing the Internet with display advertising and other marketing tactics so effective that the institution has grown to over 200 locations in 39 states and online and closed out its latest fiscal year with nearly $4.5 billion in revenue. The university also received some attention in the form of a class action lawsuit filed against its parent company, Apollo Group Inc.

My marketer friend was explaining that the company is seeking to embed sustainability thinking into its strategy and operations. This extends to its marketing. Traditional marketing tactics such as paying for leads or rewarding marketers based in part on the number of new student registrations a campaign produces may be unsustainable, she said. You can’t create incentives to maximize student registrations if that means filling the pipeline with students who may not succeed, or will not be able to afford tuition. That’s not a sustainable formula. The true measure of sustainability is not how many students enroll, but how many graduate successfully with enhanced career prospects.

Therefore, the usual closed-loop system in which the effectiveness of online ads can be quickly assessed by linking them to the student registrations they produced doesn’t work. How can you judge the sustainable effectiveness of an advertisement when the outcome of the ad may not be known for years? Even if you keep 5-10 years of data, the creative, the copy, and the media placements of five or ten years ago will likely have gone stale and become irrelevant in the present.

So my question is, what are the metrics for sustainable marketing when sustainability is measured over years? Or do metrics fail us? Do we have to fall back on intuition?

I would love hear your thoughts.

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