Digital Marketing: Is It Time to Forget Measurement?

Why Online Advertising Is Hindered by Its Biggest Strength

By Published on . 16

Andy Atherton is cofounder of Brand.net.
Andy Atherton is cofounder of Brand.net.
In several recent pieces I have written about the opportunities and limitations of measurement in online media, particularly for branding. If you read those articles, the title of this byline might seem strange. For the rest of you, this title might seem like downright heresy. Please, read on before you call the exorcist.

The internet wasn't always the multibillion-dollar industry that it is today. Less than 15 years ago, most websites we know today didn't exist. The relatively few that did were searching for business models. Some went with a subscription model, at least for a while (most notably AOL), while most content-focused sites honed in on advertising as the main source of revenue. As they did, they faced a huge challenge: how to sell advertising against more established media with what then was an extremely short list of assets.

Recall the internet circa 1996, the year one of the biggest and best known content sites, Yahoo, went public: Bandwidth was narrow, content was thin, audiences were small, creative was primitive. However, the internet did excel in one area: It was awash with data. Page views, time spent, clicks, conversions -- a treasure trove of new metrics, along with some "old" ones that hadn't been as readily available with other media.

I was recently talking this over with my former boss from Yahoo, Wenda Harris Millard, and she added that the measurability of this new medium also tapped into a broader theme in the advertising business at the time -- growing dissatisfaction with measurement of traditional media. So, quite rationally, the internet advertising value proposition focused on measurement.

As the industry grew -- faster than any media in history -- more sophisticated targeting (behavioral, retargeting, "hyper-targeting") and measurement ("engagement," "search lift") capabilities were developed. The focus on measurement evolved and became more ingrained, almost to the point of being the unquestioned orthodoxy. It was as if the core benefit of the internet vs. other media was measurement. Period.

Therefore, to sell more ads you need more measurement. (Two secondary factors, customization and short lead-times, also received significant emphasis—but those are topics for another day.)

The reason for my provocative headline is this: if today, in February 2009, we started with a blank PowerPoint slide and asked the same question that was asked some 15 years ago -- how do we sell ads against more established media -- would we select the same strategy? I think the answer is no.

Consider the "balance sheet" of the internet now compared to then. Assets have grown tremendously: Bandwidth is broad, content is deep and compelling; audiences are huge; sight, sound and motion have entered the creative mix through rich media and video. And the balance sheets of the other major consumer media have accumulated significant liabilities: Print is facing declining circulation and, especially in newspapers, a rapidly aging demographic; radio ad sales are off sharply, while at the same time the once-promising satellite radio subscription model has proved endlessly unprofitable; TV, after getting past the "fragmentation" issue that was the obsession of the 1990s, has been covered by the huge black storm cloud that is DVR penetration. In 2008, 29% of all US households used DVRs, according to Barclay's Capital -- and that number is forecast to double by 2012 and reach nearly 80% by 2016. Those of us with DVRs watch dramatically fewer commercials. It's just a fact.

So, if we were starting fresh in today's environment, I would simply argue that we wouldn't (and thus shouldn't) lead with measurement. The measurement pitch has obviously worked extremely well for direct response; about 30% of DR-focused measured media spend is now online. But 95% of brand spending, or more than $100 billion, is still offline. For those budgets, I think our collective pitch should be more like "Your audience moved. Your marketing needs to follow them. Let us show you how the internet can deliver the same quality, scalability and value as TV." Measurement should still be an important part of the story -- we'd be foolish to ignore all the opportunities there -- but I submit that it should be the sizzle not the steak.

That's one of my missions at Brand.net: As stakeholders in the biggest, most powerful consumer media today, how do we provide the world's leading brand advertisers the quality, scale and value of TV, the prior generation's No. 1 consumer mass media? By making the critical, powerful, yet fragmented content environment of the internet more consistent and more buyable. And more measurable, of course -- but measurable by the criteria and metrics brands have developed over decades to evaluate efficacy of 100s of billions of dollars of spend.

When we as an industry can do this, we can finally move large brand budgets online, following the audiences that are already there. This shift will in turn provide financial support for publishers to develop yet deeper, richer, more engaging online content experiences.

Some of you may still want to call the exorcist, but for the rest of you, let's get to work.

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Andy Atherton is cofounder and chief operating officer of Brand.net.

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