The industry has a dirty secret and we need to do something about it. We all love to talk about it in small meetings, but nobody has stuck out their neck to say "stop the madness!" The way we measure the brand building power of online advertising is a farce, and it's time for a change.
You know the methodology: Consumers are exposed to an online advertisement and are asked questions about the advertisement seconds later. The problem is that good marketing makes an emotional impression that lasts more than a few seconds. It lasts weeks or even years. But we don't measure it that way online.
Just recently, I was on a Toyota microsite and quickly got intercepted to participate in a survey. The site had audio, so my thoughts were interrupted before I could even answer any questions. The survey asked, "What car company comes to mind?" while the site was screaming "Toyota" in the background. It reminded me of the stain on the shirt in the classic Tide to Go advertisement that interrupted the interviewer before he could finish any questions. It would be almost impossible for a respondent to not mention Toyota with the site broadcasting the brand in the background. But that doesn't mean the campaign was effective. It means the methodology was flawed.
Here's the scary part: Somebody is going to take the data from this campaign to Toyota, one of the world's most important brands, to prove that it was a success. We all understand why it's done; it simultaneously validates jobs and the entire industry. We have a tool that tells us we are doing a good job. So why should we rebel against this tool, given that it keeps our jobs intact and our children fed?
The reason to stop the madness is that it puts all of us at risk. If we are serving bogus effectiveness data, doesn't that imply that the entire industry could possibly be bogus? Shouldn't it call into question everything we do?
As if putting the entire online advertising industry in jeopardy isn't sufficient, these surveys are ruining another industry: market research. There are few tools that are as powerful as surveys for understanding unmet consumers needs. Consumers who use a site on a regular basis should be excited about giving feedback on how to improve and customize the experience. But if consumers get pounded with irrelevant surveys about advertising, nobody is going to provide feedback when a compelling survey is finally launched on the site.
Agencies must take the lead on fixing this problem. Great agencies are trusted advisors that manage holistic needs for bottom-line key performance indicator (KPI) goals. By settling for an easy and ineffective measurement tool, agencies are shirking their responsibility for managing overall brand health and fiscal goals.
Rather than lament about the problems, let's create solutions today. These are not overly complicated maneuvers, but the industry simply needs to get over the hurdle of making some changes. Here are some ideas to consider.
Use a multi-pronged approach
Surveys measure a brand's level of awareness and interest. There are a number of other ways to measure these KPIs, including view-throughs, overall site visitation, branded search traffic (particularly on Mondays), social networking chatter and, most importantly, product revenue. None of these are perfect, but when used appropriately and in conjunction, they should be as directionally accurate as survey data.
For example, there are emerging tools that measure the frequency and tone of brand mentions in the social environment. "Companies like to still measure impressions," says Dan Neely, the CEO of Networked Insights. "If customers are impressed they will express themselves, through inviting others, posting, or even recommending, so let's start measuring expressions. We need to listen to our customers in their natural engagements in a cross-platform environment. It's definitely more difficult, but with advanced listening analytics we can get there."
Brand building is complex. Measuring the effect of brand building efforts should not be simple.
Use logical timeframes for surveys
If we must use survey research, we need to conduct the surveys after a logical timeframe from when users are exposed to the advertisements. In the TV and print worlds, this period is typically around one week after an ad runs, which is much more logical than testing seconds after an ad runs.
"There is a serious underlying weakness to many of the current online ad testing programs," says Jacob Brown of In-Depth Research. "They test how clearly the ad is communicating its message but do not accurately gauge how the ad is impacting the customer's feelings about the brand or their intention to buy. Measuring a response just after exposure to the ad and extrapolating that to future buying behavior is a very, very long stretch. You need to ask a consumer a few days later to see if feelings about a brand have truly changed on a visceral level to assess memorability, impact, brand equity, or buying intentions."
It would be relatively easy to do this; simply launch the intercepts one week after exposure, not instantaneously. Thinking forward, it would be incredibly powerful to use mobile measurement so we can test the effectiveness of advertisements when users are physically detached from the traditional browser or even when they are in the retail shopping environment.
Optimize instead of validate
There's an industry axiom that "agencies use research like a drunk uses a lamppost; for support rather than illumination." We need to break this cycle and use measurement dynamically during a campaign to optimize creative and media placements, rather than at the end of a campaign to prove that it worked.
It could be very straightforward. Conduct research at key intervals of a campaign, such as 20 percent and 50 percent into the media spend, then optimize based on findings. Or use multivariate tools to modify in real-time based on audience behavior. Agencies talk about this frequently, but rarely is it actually put into practice. It would truly create a competitive advantage.
We should not throw out the baby with the bath water: Thousands of these studies have been conducted and there is great data available in the findings that can be leveraged.
For example, the Online Publishers Association recently launched new ad units. The relative effectiveness of these units could be compared to the massive database of findings for other sizes, which is a powerful short-term tool. But, as we all know, we need to move beyond short-term tools and into more long-term, strategic thinking. It's time to stop the madness.
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