Judging the return on investment for a marketing budget can be very difficult, even for banks with access to sophisticated analytics.

Questions abound. Do you assess a campaign based on new customers? Brand-recognition surveys? Unique visitors? The number of clicks or likes or shares online? Each of these figures tells just one part of the survey, and each is affected by other factors, which makes judging return on investment difficult.

At the Financial Services Marketing and Innovation Conference in New York on Wednesday, marketing executives outlined differing strategies, though they generally agreed that the key to success involves getting good, specific data on a campaign's effectiveness.

"The question is, how will I know it's working?" said Deborah Van Valkenburgh, senior vice president of strategic brand management at PNC Bank in Pittsburgh. "You need to be able to develop metrics and measures all along the campaign trail and come back and demonstrate the effectiveness."

Banks need a broad number that reflects their strategic goal. PNC uses the estimated lifetime value of each type of customer account, using that metric to plan its marketing campaigns, Van Valkenburgh said. "That's what we're using at the top of the house to say, which programs, which initiatives, which investments are going to deliver the most units and the greatest amount of customer lifetime value," she said.

Van Valkenburgh was one of several executives at the annual conference who discussed solving the riddle of what works and what doesn't in bank marketing. The conference was organized by SourceMedia, which owns American Banker.

Marketing "is as much a strategic challenge as it is a tactical one," said Kevin Travis, managing director of Novantas, a financial services consultancy. "It's about how do I figure out where the highest return is."

The stickiness of retail customers raises the stakes. With less than 9% of customers switching banks each year, Travis said, a strong campaign could be a long-term boon, while an ineffective one could fail to move the needle at all.

Regions Financial looks at a number of metrics — clicks, likes, shares, new accounts — to get a birds-eye view of the success of a new digital campaign, said Brett Pohlman, the Birmingham, Ala., company's social media community manager. But just how knotty the issue is can be judged by Pohlman's reaction when asked about how Regions calculates return on investment.

"Oh, I knew I was going to get the ROI question," he said. "It's a very difficult question."

Still, the bank's current strategy makes calculating ROI — at least for social-media marketing — somewhat beside the point. Regions is playing catch-up after starting its social-media efforts only in 2011, and the immediate goal is to raise brand recognition rather than sell products.

"We would love to get a lot better at" calculating return on investment, Pohlman said. "But selling is not a number-one priority for us. Being very young in the social media space, we're all about awareness, and getting people comfortable with the type of information we're giving."

Increasing brand awareness and selling products require very different marketing strategies, Van Valkenburgh said. PNC's rapid growth over the last five years brought it into many new markets and made brand awareness its main goal. In markets like Atlanta, where PNC is relatively new and the bank simply wants to build brand awareness, it has experimented with online only marketing campaigns.

But now, having built a brand in its new markets, PNC's emphasis is shifting.

"In the past, our media strategy was primarily to build awareness of PNC," Van Valkenburgh said. "We need to go beyond awareness today."


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Corrected October 31, 2014 at 9:02AM: In an earlier version Kevin Travis' name was misspelled.