Not to be the voice of pessimism, but I’d like to take this opportunity to emphatically remind marketers that despite what vendors say, there are no magic bullets in the marketplace that would firmly link ads to offline sales! Not to be a total killjoy, I can say that there has been enough innovation in the marketplace, where we are definitely getting better at offering brands a nuanced, albeit directional indication that links specific campaigns to offline sales. It is a rare scenario, however, when all the data pieces come together where one can attribute specific impressions or engagements to specific sales.
So it is incumbent upon my agency brethren to take firmer stances with their clients and offer them a reality check.
What Is Actually Possible?
What is possible is all over the place. Loyalty cards and programs have been a significant contributor to data collection for retailers for a long time. For brands, however, what’s available is disparate and often not timely enough to be actionable. Unfortunately, a major roadblock to being able to definitively connect media spend to offline sales can be found in the resistance on the part of the big guys -- Target and Walmart -- to share timely and actionable data with the very brands selling on their shelves. These two retailers represent nearly 23% of the retail market (KantarRetail 2013), and their dominance is even more amplified if you narrow the focus to specific categories like CPG.
But could we maybe look away from the retailers and to the consumers themselves to reconcile on a household level? For example, Nielsen Homescan represents about 100,000 households in the U.S., and is used for projecting out against the nation as a whole. With digital, people expect a one-to-one of exposure-to- purchase; we’re so far from that with the Homescan projections. All of this leaves us with a partial view of the marketplace, and even that is a view with a lot of holes. This incomplete picture makes performing purchase analysis on an individual level not possible. We will always be able to perform market testing and other analysis techniques to understand general lift of a campaign on sales, but moving beyond this norm is still proving to be a challenge.
It is important that agencies take a brave position around this issue with their clients. It’s incumbent on agencies to set realistic expectations now or suffer the consequences of unmet ones down the road.
It’s not all bad, though. Some companies are setting up the backbone that will at some point make this all possible. The work they are doing to create plug-and-play data platforms that make the tough correlations between disparate sources of data is invaluable, and will surely spawn other packaged solutions. It’s possible for some brands in some industries to use these platforms and get nearly real-time, actionable insights. However, as long as the availability of data is limited, the dream will remain elusive to most, and the accountability gap will persist.