The recent Marketing Accountability Forum sponsored by the Association of National Advertisers kicked off by releasing results of a new survey of senior-level marketers. While some 60 percent of senior-level marketers surveyed said that defining, measuring, and taking action on ROI is important, only about 20 percent reported being satisfied with their ability to do so. Yup, here we go again, a new salvo in the advertising ROI war. Can anyone object to measuring the return on investment of business expenditures wherever possible? I certainly don't. The rub, however, is that little qualifier, "wherever possible."

The rush to prove advertising ROI is a direct outgrowth of the recent "pay for performance" advertising phenomenon induced by the search engines, which in some cases, does allow advertisers to measure ROI with some degree of precision. And for those who can't measure the ROI of their pay for performance advertising, there's at least the comfort that the advertiser is still only paying for performance, right? Right, but let's not forget that the definition of "performance" has been crafted by the same organizations you are paying for that performance. Just try to buy something with all those clickthroughs you just spent so much money to obtain, and you'll see just how abstract that definition really is.

For advertisers, asking a publisher for proof of ROI has no downside. ROI is a "motherhood and apple pie" concept: nobody will ever laugh at you for bringing it up. At the same time, while it is a serious business concept, it's also in many cases nothing more than a trendy new sales objection Can publishers prove value? Yes, but only if they define what value means, just as the search engines have defined what performance means.

Consider an air travel analogy. You have a hot new sales prospect in a distant city. You need to make your sales presentation in person. You call an airline and arrange the flight. Do you then require the airline to prove ROI before you purchase your ticket? After all, if you don't make the sale, the price of the ticket is wasted, and you'll have zero return on that investment. In this context, what is ROI? The airline can't guarantee you'll make the sale. The airline can't be reasonably asked to show statistics and case studies to prove that a high percentage of salespeople who fly to sales presentations close deals. The airline's job is to get you from point to point safely and on time. It can't and won't make any promises beyond that. If you can get to that sales presentation without flying, more power to you. But if you need to fly, you do it on the airline's terms, in the context of their clear mission and value proposition. The airline is a means to an end, a business tool.

When missions and value propositions get fuzzy, so do business roles, promises and measurements. And lest you think advertisers have more of a handle on this than publishers, consider the big new initiative rolled out during this ANA conference, called MI4 (Measurement Initiative: Advertisers, Agencies, Media and Researchers). Core to this new initiative is a proposal that the entire industry adopt "consumer engagement" as a key to "Return on Media Investment" analysis. What is "consumer engagement?" Well, even though it's fundamental to this new initiative, it still hasn't been defined, nor has it been tested. They're going off to do that now. The takeaway for database publishers? With all this uncertainty among people who are clamoring for certainty, it is incumbent on us to not only define our value, but also to define how that value is measured.