The ad industry has always been consumed with the latest trends. This should be no surprise, given that marketers and their agencies spend the better part of their days trying to create them. But nothing in advertising has generated more buzz in recent months than programmatic buying. Buying ad inventory more efficiently by applying rules to technology-enabled, automated purchases has marketers salivating.
Amid all the euphoria, an important question has emerged: how to measure the effectiveness of programmatically bought brand advertising. This is fairly straightforward for direct-response advertising -- the same activity-based measures employed for years (click-throughs, views, etc.) still apply, and programmatic platforms and trading desks have done a fantastic job of seamlessly integrating them into a marketer's workflow.
But brand advertising is more complicated, as the traditional measures of effectiveness (campaign reach, resonance, and reaction) requires more manual involvement in establishing and interpreting the results -- all of which can counteract the efficiencies that programmatic buying offers in the first place.
The temptation is strong for brand advertisers engaging in programmatic buying to let the algorithm do the work and shift to a more periodic, reactive check of effectiveness measures. After all, if the platforms' and trading desks' algorithms enable a marketer to reach the right audience going into the buying decision, how critical is post-buy measurement? To draw an analogy, if you were given the millionth self-driving car, and none of the earlier ones had crashed, would you really stare in the rear-view mirror the whole time to assess how well it's working as it whisks you to your destination?
Sound Measurement Still Matters
It's a beguiling thought for marketers, because programmatic buying offers efficiencies on both sides of the equation – you increase the efficiency of your media buying, and you don't have to invest as much in confirming or disconfirming its efficacy after the fact. But it's flawed thinking, and can jeopardize the success of a marketer's campaign. Sound, independent measurement focused on core brand objectives matters in a programmatic buying environment every bit as much than in a non-programmatic one.
This is true for several reasons:
1. Even if one agrees that advanced audience-identification makes the reach element of post-buy measurement somewhat duplicative, for the reasons advanced above, programmatic buying does nothing to confirm the "resonance" and "reaction" aspects of a campaign. This is where the difference between brand and direct response advertising really bites. Do those exposed to the ad remember it? Even if they remember the ad itself, do they remember the message? Is it influencing them to think about the advertised product or brand in a different way? Are they ultimately more likely to purchase? It may well be that they fit the profile of someone in the market for the product – but did they buy it once exposed? Ignoring questions of resonance and reaction is like sending out a (virtual) message in a bottle.
2. It's far from clear that the claims made for programmatic buying in regards to reach are uniformly reliable: Because of its early promise, programmatic buying, like many hot advertising trends before it, has attracted a tidal wave of players, from technology companies, to agencies, to ad networks, to publishers looking for an edge. This is an unavoidable issue of the fact that you create programmatic models not just to direct ads algorithmically, but to build scale. When you do this you inevitably sacrifice some degree of accuracy.
3.There is often a complex chain of companies involved in the aggregation of ad inventory and audience data. This makes it difficult for marketers and others to identify weak links in order to improve programmatic buying performance. We have seen many platforms and trading desks run diagnostics assessing their different providers and vendors and finding themselves taking action to optimize performance as a result. It turns out that measurement is a key enabler of improving programmatic buying -- not something made irrelevant by it.
4. The automated nature of programmatic buying makes transparency and accountability critical. In the cult movie classic Office Space, a band of slackers "earns" a small fortune by writing a piece of code that digitally siphons a penny from each transaction processed by Initech -- something only possible in the world of computers. There are many rumors of this procedure having been applied in the real world. While none has been verified, the idea does call out two important things when it comes to rules-based, automated systems: one, left unchecked, anything that is "off" in an algorithmic protocol will generally be repeated over and over, turning small problems into big ones very quickly; and two, there will always be some players incentivized to game the system, and technical complexity is their ally.
For all these reasons, independent third party audience measurement is as crucial for campaigns driven by programmatic buying as it is for the traditional kind.
Next week: Read part two, "What Programmatic Measurement for Brands Should Look Like."