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8 myths that haunt online marketers

8 myths that haunt online marketers Susan Kuchinskas

Sure, you've heard it all before -- but is everything we hear right? We asked digital media experts to go against the grain and debunk some commonly held wisdom about the business. Some of these truisms used to be true but are no longer; others are legacies of the traditional advertising world. And one of them might depend on whether you're on the client or agency side of the table.

How many of these theories do you think are ready for the trash heap?

1. You should measure everything you can.

Solid measurement has always been touted as digital media's key to resolving John Wanamaker's doubts about which 50 percent of his advertising worked. There's no end to the geeking out we can do with data, and it seems like every month there's a new metric and a new analytics vendor. The more, the better, right?

Well, no. Sometimes, the more data you have, the less it makes sense.

"I'm from research -- and I think that's a myth," says Todd Kirby, research director for Spark Communications. "If you have enough evidence to show something is working, why do you need to have more research to back it up?"

But marketers keep asking media agencies for more and more proof that their advertising is working. And that's probably the interactive industry's own fault -- for perpetually hammering on the measurement nail. Nevertheless, despite clients' demands for measurement, Peter Platt, VP of online media for Butler/Till Media, finds that clients ultimately avoid his reports. "It amazes me how often we start a campaign, have the metrics established and document how we'll report," Platt says. "But when it's time to go over the reports, the clients keep putting off the meeting."

That's probably because those reports seem so very daunting. And, the more metrics they address, the more daunting they become. The result, Platt says, is that the information doesn't get acted on as frequently as it needs to. "It's good to measure all those things, but not necessarily good to dwell on the minutia," he says.

Brian Hadley's solution to metrics overload is this: Start with the end in mind. Hadley, media director of Cole & Weber United, a WPP agency in Seattle, advises clients to decide on one ultimate goal and then identify meaningful milestones along the way to that goal. "It's defining success and also developing a measuring stick," he says.

2. Clickthroughs are the gold standard for measurement.

Add this one to the woes agencies brought on themselves.

"In the late 1990s and early 2000s, we did a really good job of saying that digital is measurable. And now it's coming back to bite us," says Jennifer Samples, SVP and director of digital marketing for TargetCast tcm, an integrated marketing, media and measurement agency. "Clients will say, 'This is a branding campaign, we want awareness.' So, we'll put strategies and tactics into play that are very brand-focused. But often when it comes down to the reports, they don't care. They care about how many people clicked on the ad and went to the website."

When he puts together media plans, Platt says he tries to set expectations and project number of clicks. "At least that way, we have the conversation before the campaign goes live," he says.

TargetCast encourages clients to look at CPX -- that is, cost-per-whatever they really want to measure. But the bottom line, Samples says, is, "Don't look at CPMs or CTRs. Look at what you want, how much you want to pay and what's your ROI."

However, especially in these rough economic times, clients crave that action. "We're doing everything we can to push direct response," says Katelyn Watson, manager of online marketing for La Quinta Inns and Suites. "We're still getting from agencies that branding is important and driving everything else, but in our numbers, we're not seeing it."

Take note, media folk: La Quinta is not only turning down any sort of branding initiative, it's also turning to ad networks instead of media agencies, because, as Watson says, "It's so efficient."

3. Ads get a halo effect from the websites on which they appear.

But wait -- doesn't La Quinta worry about the sites on which those networked ads might show up? Not at all.

"The way networks are targeting, they target where you audience is," Watson says. "Sometimes people underestimate the power of being where their audience is because they're overly concerned about their brand integrity. We’ve completely opened the floodgates to pretty much anyone who responds well to our ads."

That's a smart strategy, says Greg Koerner, a Yahoo alum who's now chief revenue officer for MediaBank, a provider of technology and analytics to the advertising industry. "My belief is that the industry should be selling and buying audiences and not inventory," he says. In other words, TravelAndLeisure.com may have the luxe look, but if more customers use Kayak.com, just do the math. This emphasis on inventory over advertising is a hangover from traditional media, Koerner says.

4. Post-impression attribution has matured.

In the past, whichever ad got a click got credit for all the action. One of the newest sciences in analytics is post-impression attribution -- the idea that you can chart the influence of each piece of media in a campaign to determine its contribution to the desired action or awareness. Although it's much better than examining entrails, this science is far from mature, according to media planners.

"My experience has been that the attribution models of even the most sophisticated ad servers can only take in a handful of feeds, and they struggle with de-duping actions appropriately," says Matt Hinson, VP of strategy and innovation for Mullen. Hinson's firm tries to combat this by building out data marts that can serve as a double count for both attribution modeling and general media impressions, in order to get a better feel for which campaign is actually performing.

Jeff Ratner, managing partner and North American director of interactive media at Mindshare, agrees. "I don't know if anyone has cracked the code, but it's critical," he says. "No medium exists in a vacuum." For example, search gets credit for plenty of clicks but, as Ratner points out, people often search for something because they're already aware of it. In other words, when it comes to post-impression attribution, Ratner says, "It's still not a heck of a lot different than where we were in traditional media."

5. Young folks don't watch broadcast content.

We've heard the dire statistics: TV viewing has dropped among the teen and adult demographics, especially among men. But there is still appointment television, although it might be time-shifted slightly, Kirby says. People want to be able to join in the conversation at school or work about last night's shows, so they'll watch "Gossip Girl" on Monday night and "The Office" on Thursday night -- but they may TiVo through the commercials or watch it after another show. They may watch on the big screen downstairs, the small TV in the bedroom or their computer screens at home or elsewhere.

"The key to connecting with them via TV and video content is relevance," Kirby says. That means both message relevance and relevance of the content where the ads appear, whether online or off, is critical.

The media multi-tasking that young people do only adds to the confusion. While neuroscience indicates that people can't really pay attention to two things at once, the distractions of instant messaging, talking on the phone or Facebooking make the media task more challenging.

Kirby says it's important to play to the consumer's likely mindset on any one of the media channels and present brand ads on the engagement medium. For example, say someone is watching the World Series while he's logged into MLB.com and texting friends with score updates. The TV is used as entertainment, while he's using the internet to find information that deepens that entertainment experience. "So, that is the engagement," Kirby says. "Texting is a task. You wouldn't want to be interrupted in that task with a message."

According to Hadley, marketers should surround the consumer with relevant messaging that takes into account the interplay between the different media and devices. "The historical purchase path was very linear," he says. "Now, it's a tumbler."

6. Digital media planning and buying are separate roles.

This is another holdover from the traditional world, digital media execs say. But it just doesn't work when it comes to online.

"In digital, you have to plan and buy at same time," Samples says. "While you plan, you're also in negotiation. It all has to happen in an integrated approach."

Besides, we now know that digital is a gargantuan branding tool, says Koerner. "In order to execute a strategy, you have to be involved the entire way," he says. "Digital is not a function of just making the buy; you have to optimize and negotiate based on a strategy. So, there's no way I could be convinced that you would want to separate those factions out."

7. Digital agencies should use the same compensation model as traditional agencies.

So, if digital media agencies are going to work more like traditional agencies, they should be paid the same way, right? Wrong.

Simply marking up the media buy doesn't work because it's a lot more work to handle a digital campaign, thanks in large part to the need to crunch all those data.

"When you're working on a commission-only model, a $300,000 campaign can be more work than a $3 million campaign," Samples says. "You have to work harder to make the dollars work harder."

Platt agrees. "I never, ever get a call from a client saying, 'How many phone calls did I get from my print ad?'" he says. "I always get a call asking how many clicks they got from a banner. We always have to do more backend tracking; there need to be ways to compensate for that."

Hinson prefers models that are more performance-driven. "Anyone can produce solid advertising," he says. "If you can help a client achieve business goals, you're an agency that doesn't get put into review."

Along these lines, Cole & Weber has instituted performance incentives for its clients. "We work with the client to understand the business goals and construct some compensation to show the value beyond our time," Hadley says.

8. There are interactive advertising experts.

Finally, Koerner makes a good observation for all digital marketing practitioners to keep in mind. When compared to print, and even TV, the interactive medium was born yesterday. "The reason you see all these conferences and committees spending so much time getting at the issues is we all know there's so much value in the digital advertising space, but the way things are bought, sold and reconciled is still being worked through," he says. "We would do better as an industry if we all treated each other as though we're all novices, and we all have to learn."

Susan Kuchinskas is a freelance writer who has written for Adweek, Business 2.0, M-Business and internetnews.com.

Susan Kuchinskas has covered internet technology since the mid 1990s, when e-commerce was kind of a wacky idea. As a senior writer for Adweek, Business 2.0, M-Business and internetnews.com, she's watched the interactive advertising grow from a tiny...

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