Making Our Numbers

I am enough of an old Web media fart to recall the days when another digital ad platform was struggling for the respect of advertisers. Back in 1999 and 2000 the hype surrounding the Internet was far ahead of the actual ad spend, even as more eyeballs migrated here. For a while, I recall, 13% was some kind of magic number frustrated digital publishers bandied about. One of the metrics firms found that 13% of media mindshare was going to the Internet, and audacious publishers bemoaned the big disconnect between mind-share and spend-share. Only about 3% of media budgets went digital at the time.

Although the big disconnect between mind-share and spend remain online, the numbers have improved overall. Many forces contributed to the torrent of online ad money (not the least of which was search), but I still believe that the interactive content and marketing industries themselves helped move the needle with a deliberate marshalling of hard and consistent research about online ad effectiveness. Groups like the Online Publishing Association commissioned research that showed the power of content brand in ad effectiveness. The IAB and others carted out case study after case study and cross-media campaign analyses. Publishers themselves started throwing in Dynamic Logic post-campaign branding studies as value-adds -- to the point where some of us in the press were memorizing the "intent to buy" lifts registered by high profile campaigns. Ultimately, the online ad industry was learning the language of agencies and media buyers and getting beyond its own hype.

We are at a similar point in mobile now, because we are not ready yet to answer some basic questions, like what role mobile plays in a larger campaign or an overall media strategy for a brand. This is a question I find myself asking at the many panels and conferences I moderate. From a brand or campaign manager's perspective, what is mobile supposed to do? What role does it play? And how does it compare to the other rows in the campaign's spreadsheet?

We may be getting some answers to this most basic question from the "Three Screen Trial" that ioglobal is conducting and the Mobile Marketing Association is supporting with staff and resources. In the last few months, I have been talking with ioglobal's North American general manager, Bob DeSena, about this project, which sounds to me like a fascinating lab for both content providers and advertisers. It is designed to test comparatively media and ad effectiveness across mobile, Web and TV. For the first time we will see how consistent media and messaging work on a similar audience across the key platforms. According to DeSena, the major publishers in this test finally will get preliminary answers to a fundamental question: "What is the appropriate format and use of mobile to promote their properties, to distribute their properties and to do it in a way to maximize multiple platforms." On the ad side, this test is aimed squarely at agencies and brand managers who have to start thinking of mobile as more than a test -- as a part of a larger strategy and buying plan.

The Three Screen Trial promises to measure who is seeing the mobile impression -- and how many times. What is the overlap with other media? And then, most important, what is the impact of the campaign channel by channel? The test is ready to roll, and the MMA and ioglobal are reopening the project to more agency involvement and test campaigns. For the auto category, financial and packaged goods segments, all of which have evolved programs on all three platforms, this would seem to be a perfect opportunity to establish the baseline metrics each of these industries needs to invest seriously in mobile.

These are the hard and big questions that, so far as I can tell, mobile has not even begun to ask -- let alone answer. Arguably, some of them haven't even been asked pointedly enough about online advertising's relationship to the rest of the marketing mix. To its credit, the MMA decided to get behind this study, and I think it would be good for the industry if it served as the kind of landmark research that helped push the Web needle in 2002 and 2003. "When we talk about mobile, it is great to talks about how it could be successful," MMA president Laura Marriott told me the other day. "But until we get common qualitative and quantitative measures, it is difficult to convince marketers to get money behind it."

It feels a bit like 2001 all over again, where the needle really has to move out of the hype-and-promise zone into measurable, comparative, results.

Tags: mobile
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