NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- If not the click, then what?
There is no one answer to how to best measure online advertising. But it's becoming increasingly clear that in an era defined by deeper and better analysis of online data -- the Google-ification of online advertising -- many marketers are betting on a familiar-looking model: Do the ads move those more-traditional metrics, such as consideration and intent to purchase?
The value of using a click to measure online-advertising effectiveness has come under a lot of fire from a lot of different quarters. Those against it note that it does nothing to recognize any prior online or offline marketing activity that might also have contributed to the consumer's click. And while some acknowledge the role it plays at the business end of the sales funnel for certain brands (particularly online retailers), marketers who are interested in brand-building and perception complain that clicks tell them little or nothing about the impact of web display ads.
"It's the closest thing to a standard, but it doesn't mean anything to anybody, and CMOs are just tired of hearing about it," said Andrea Kerr Redniss, senior VP-digital at Optimedia. Plus, as ComScore has pointed out, two-thirds of web users never click on an ad during the course of a month, and the ones who do are generally younger, lower-income web surfers.
As sophisticated marketers are starting to move away from clicks as a proxy for impact and likely sales, the online ad market is splitting into separate camps.
On one side, you have marketers using clicks' more-nuanced cousin, the web interaction, to look for clues to ad effectiveness. For example, an automaker that knows that one out of every four cars configured on its website results in a visit to a showroom can optimize online ads based on those configurations.
On the other side, you have advertisers, including many package-goods marketers, that generally wouldn't use online actions as an indicator for anything. Consider, for example, the plight of a toilet-bowl-cleaner brand. "Most people are never going to go to their favorite bathroom cleanser's website -- they will never, ever do that," said John Burbank, CEO of Nielsen Online. "But does that mean the medium can't be effective? I don't think so."
Once, marketers used online advertising to generate online sales. Now, as package-goods marketers such as Reckitt Benckiser move dollars to online, they're demanding a measure of sales impact on the ground. Increasingly it's through offline legwork, such as surveys and matching data with in-store sales.
Mr. Burbank's package-goods upbringing at Procter & Gamble clearly informs some of his opinions in the space, and he cites the importance of low-interest brands being able to "tell stories" on the web. He said advertisers should ask four questions: What kinds of consumers saw the online ad? Did I get a fair chance in terms of time and delivery environment to make my case? Was there a shift in attitude? Did people who saw it buy more stuff?
"The most broken part of the web today is the attitudinal piece," said Curt Hecht, president of VivaKi's Audience on Demand unit. He said he believes the killer app will be a sort of always-on brand-health meter that he could dive into on a regular basis to gauge online ad effectiveness. "On the acquisition side it's easy to know if you should dial up, dial down -- you know what you're going to get," he said. "But on the branding side it's a big hurdle; it's not known."
Web measurement firms ComScore, Nielsen and Compete are all working on multidisciplinary approaches to solve the problem, and all include a mix of their own and third-party research, as well as sales data. "We don't think there is one magical metric," said Compete Chief Marketing Officer Stephen DiMarco. "You need to triangulate across several data points."
What's in the works
Compete's early work on a database called Ad Impact assesses the biggest online ad buys: home-page takeovers of the major portals such as Yahoo, AOL and MySpace. Those campaigns are national in scope, approach the reach of TV ad campaigns and are high-impact and expensive. Advertisers want to know how effective their campaigns are by a variety of offline metrics, such as general awareness, brand recall, purchase intent and actual sales.
ComScore has focused its work on the retail and CPG categories. Its Brand Metrix can include panel data, surveys and sales data from sources such as Dunnhumby, a sales-database that matching and analyzes surfing behavior.
Nielsen is working with its IAG unit, acquired last year, to study attitudes and using HomeScan data to study sales; it has worked with ad sellers such as Yahoo and Brand.net to help provide advertisers with some answers.
But some advertisers cite the solutions as cost prohibitive, too campaign-based or too slow. And that illustrates one of the paradoxes of the problem: As long as web advertising remains so cheap to buy, it's simply not worth advertisers spending major amounts of money on research. And until the research gets done to prove effectiveness, advertisers are unwilling to pay markedly more for online ads.
Rob Norman, CEO of Group M Interaction, said what we're talking about is the stuff that has always defined good advertising -- creating awareness, developing a set of attitudes and preferences -- and it can't be measured by looking at the web in isolation. "You use those [attitudinal] measures, and because no one's ever been able to attribute those measures to a single instance of advertising, you have to look at it in aggregate and feed online things into econometric model." So the solution's not new, he said; rather, readjusting to it is.
"[On the web] we started people off down a measurement route that says every set of data points tells you something, and in the branding world I think that's really not quite true," he said.
What they're seeing are the limits of online data to solving marketers' problems. "Remember why you're advertising," said Carrie Frolich, managing director-digital at Mediaedge:cia. "You are not advertising for clicks or [gross rating points]. What you're advertising for is to sell me stuff or change perception, and that's what we need to be measuring against."