I’m no researcher, but in recent years have acquired an appreciation for the role of research in audience targeting and measurement as well as its effectiveness in B2B marketing. Last week I had a rare opportunity to rub elbows with some of the digital media industry’s top research experts during the Advertising Research Foundation’s Audience Measurement 5.0 conference in New York. As part of the “Media Smackdown” track, I was there to co-present new research on “Media Placement Strategy and its Impact on Online Ad Effectiveness” with Anne Hunter, VP of advertising effectiveness at comScore.
Notwithstanding how excited I was to participate in the conference and introduce the research ValueClick Media and comScore will release in the coming weeks, I took the opportunity to revisit my own understanding of the state of online measurement and targeting. The main question on my mind: how far away are we from seeing brands invest more heavily in digital, which today accounts for a disproportionate +/- six percent of total media spending? Through my conversations, I reaffirmed my understanding of what’s possible today, and I got fairly consistent feedback on where things need to go in order to move us toward the measurement and targeting capabilities necessary to give brand advertisers the confidence to spend more online.
Randy Cohen, founder and CEO of Advertiser Perceptions, reinforced what comScore suggested in its 2008 “Whither the Click” research, when he reminded me that “we’re chasing the wrong metric in performance.” The real money, he says, is in upper funnel measurement and our ability to prove that online advertising is capable of moving consumers into the consideration set for a particular brand. More succinctly put, he suggests “return on ad spend is a metric, but what matters most is return on brand.” Although he predicts innovative vendors will partner to deliver breakthroughs in audience targeting and measurement brands can embrace, like most people I spoke with, he doubts a single metric for brand engagement is realistic.
A related theme shared throughout the week and captured best in my conversation with Jack Myers, is the need to move ROI measurement beyond online sales impact and brand lift studies and into better accountability for its impact on offline sales. While offline sales impact studies have shown proven lift from online campaigns, they are expensive and fall short of brand marketers’ true desire: to target ads on the basis of offline shopping behavior.
The ability to target based on offline sales data was first explored by Yahoo Consumer Direct (with Nielsen/Homescan) in 2003 and improvements can surely be expected through a more recent announcement of a joint venture between IRI and Nielsen. It is unclear yet how this will impact comScore’s relationship with IRI. comScore has partnerships with other offline data providers, including dunnhumbyUSA, Polk and others, which until recently existed primarily for the purpose of measuring offline sales impacts as a result of online advertising. But the more interesting development for comScore is its introduction of Audience Advantage, which combines offline data with comScore panel data and a look-alike modeling methodology to allow networks and portals to “pre-score” media for its propensity to identify consumers who have exhibited similar behavior to those who purchased particular products offline.
While Consumer Direct and Audience Advantage, with their look-alike models have been around for awhile, third party data sources for online behavioral targeting have emerged as a key component of the display advertising landscape over the past two years. To the extent these providers can deliver specific audiences who have exhibited a recent behavior with any scale, it would stand to reason that this would be the more effective targeting method – perhaps worthy of a future comparison by an innovating brand. Whatever approach is best, there are actionable brand targeting and measurement solutions emerging, which when proven, promoted, refined and repeated will be a boon for display advertising online.
My most entertaining conversation of the week, and perhaps the most insightful, was with Andy Fisher, EVP Global Data and Analytics Director for Starcom, who suggested that brands really do want to spend more online, if nothing else because they know their future job security depends on digital. If only we could demonstrate for them a clear reason to do so. Brands, he said, want to know who they are reaching. Not just what audience segment performed well for a particular metric, but the specific individuals reached by a campaign. To support this ideal, measurement and ratings vendors should strive to report on granular audience delivery metrics, much in the way they do for media measurement today. One shortcoming, it seems is the lack of a common taxonomy for measuring behavioral audience segments. Even if there were, the user profile data it would rely upon lives in the proprietary databases of advertisers and media companies, each with their slightly different description of the same users and valid reasons for not wanting to share the data freely.
I was unable to find anyone to argue in favor of context over audience, however, as our study with comScore will demonstrate, what strategy to deploy is highly dependent upon price, reach and each marketer’s specific objectives – and deploying multiple strategies may be most effective. To that end, one of the more interesting point made by Mr. Fisher was how in television, media equates to audience because all of the creative is delivered against the same media at the same time, making it easier to measure and scale. Whereas the distributed nature of online carries with it many more complexities because of the requirement to reach and measure audiences across several media placement options. I’m sure I am oversimplifying this thought and hope he will elaborate.
Another concept that arose from a guided luncheon discussion led by Ms. Hunter and reiterated by Joanne Burns, EVP of marketing, research and new media at Twentieth Television, was the need for research and marketing to work more integrally together. When speaking with brands, in fact, Robert McLoughlin, director strategic insights at AOL said his approach is to first ask “what is your research goal” and only then dig deeper into the typical line of questioning related to marketing objectives.
Although I’m sure gaps remain in my understanding of what’s possible and where things are headed, I came away from Audience Measurement 5.0 much more confidence that the metrics CPG and other brand-oriented advertisers demand is on the horizon, if not here already. Regardless, I can assure you there is an army of intelligent marketers, publishers, analysts, scientists and researchers working to ensure online advertising isn’t relegated to being exclusively a direct response medium.