The Story Of Us

Once every year or so, some collective rallying cry arises from the digerati, to the effect of, "We don't get as much brand advertising as we should, everyone lives online, people spend more and more time with the Internet, where's my money?"  And after much hand-wringing and angst, a general consensus emerges: "It's the measurement's fault."

You will not be surprised to learn that I tend to disagree with that conclusion.

I've been thinking a lot about this of late, and I have come to believe that the industry has an infrastructure-ecosystem-complexity problem, not a metrics problem.  This is not to say there isn't room for the metrics to improve; the day we get to that place, my job gets very dull.  Nor is it to say that the industry isn't remarkably healthy and robust; in a hellish advertising environment in 2009, online advertising in the U.S. managed to have a record fourth quarter.

But the problem that keeps coming up, in different countries, articulated in different ways, is that while we are getting a healthy share of direct-response spend, the big branding money has been slow to migrate online.  And invariably, the blame is laid at the feet of measurement.

I don't think this is a metrics problem per se.  I think it is a narrative problem.

Storytelling is the key to successful selling. I believe that every great business presentation is, at core, an archetypal fairytale. "Once upon a time there was a fair maiden called brand marketing, and she faced horrible jeopardy, until the brave knight Digital rescued the fair maiden (delivering reach and engagement), and they lived happily ever after." 

Maybe you recognize that story.  It's "Shrek."

What are our stories?  The TV story is blunt, simple and compelling, and that's why they get so much money.  Digital has multiple stories, and many of them are complex and arcane and hard to tell.  In fact, some of them conflict with each other.

For example, we know that engagement is important: the quality of the relationship of the consumer with the content, the branded environment, and the ability of that relationship to spill over into the advertising.  This is how branded differentiated content providers can charge a premium.  Almost all of the Web's most popular ad-supported destinations are predicated upon this business model. "Branded content matters," we tell the advertiser.

But more and more of the business is moving to the exchange model of, "buy inventory in real time, deliver impressions to cookies based on precise targeting criteria as efficiently (read: cheaply) as possible, regardless of the media vehicle."  "Branded content is irrelevant," we tell the advertiser.


Here's the thing. There is no magic metric that will make both these stories compelling.  They are paradoxical.  And when confronted with this paradox, advertisers shrug and say, "Digital doesn't have metrics."  But I think that often, what they mean is, "Digital is confusing because they tell me opposite things."

I accept that some publishers have decided to package remnant inventory through an exchange-type model to maximize the value of perishable inventory. But the need for making the efficiency sell as well as the branded-engagement sell renders the publisher ecosystem at least twice as complex as the TV ecosystem, and creates cognitive dissonance among advertisers.  Cognitive dissonance is a barrier to sales.

From the publisher side, I suspect that often, "I need a number" really means, "I need a narrative that I can tell compellingly with just one number."  If we don't work the narratives, then we'll end up doing a lot of work to "fix" the measurement, and at the end, we'll have marginally better measurement but the same fundamental narrative and ecosystem problems.  And the stories will be as compelling as they are today, and no more so.

In a recent blog post, "Yes, Web Advertising Scales -- If You Measure It Right," (don't miss my comment) the author argues that online measurement lags behind TV (and even radio!) measurement.  This is something I've heard before; that "the most measurable medium" somehow lags behind TV in terms of measurement, and we need to catch up.

This is a myth I'd really like to dispel.

In TV there is no attribution modeling.  There is no click-through.  There is no behavioral targeting.  There is no "internal data" with which networks or stations can modify the user experience and thus sell more products. In digital we take these things for granted.  In fact, if we wanted digital metrics to be on a par with TV metrics, that would be easy.  All we'd have to do is eliminate 95% of the metrics available online, and we'd be left with TV measurement.

Here is what TV does have: a compelling narrative. The narrative is about GRPs and the impact of good creative (that is, the fact that advertisers can tell impactful stories with commercials.) We do have online GRPs, and they are fundamentally the same metric as on TV: impressions divided by population, X 100.  All these things are easy to count (easier online than on TV, in fact).  But the digital GRP narrative has simply not proven to be compelling (save for on the part of a few very large publishers.) 

Why isn't the Digital GRP narrative as compelling?  For one thing, because it's hard to tell a Gross Rating Point story when you aren't Grossest.  Consider:  CBS's "Two and a Half Men" has a program rating of 6.  Assume 300 million persons 2+ in the U.S., and 15 commercials per episode. So one episode of this one prime-time show generates 270 million ad impressions. 

Ponder that.  One show in one half hour on one network.  In a month, if "Two and a Half Men" runs four times, it generates over a billion impressions.

No wonder Charlie Sheen gets the big money.

And then there's the creative story.  If you buy TV, you run commercials.  No search, no banners, no home page takeovers. There's one kind of creative, and it has a compelling set of benefits (visual, engaging, intrusive, hospitable to storytelling). And TV advertisers put an awful lot of money behind testing and refining the creative execution of the message before taking it on air.  Does that happen with online ads?

Online we have profoundly different kinds of inventory, and no real narrative around the quality of engagement with our creative.  Let's not kid ourselves; a great 30-second spot stays with you forever; it is a mini-film with the brand as the star (show of hands: who knows what I mean when I say, "the Coke ad with Mean Joe Greene"?  Or, "I can't believe I ate the whole thing"?)  Can anyone really point to a great search ad?  A great banner?  (And even if you can, chances are, it's because you work in the business.  Can your mom name one?) Most of our creative is here today, gone in a second.  Gone in a click.

How can brands use digital to tell stories?  When we solve that, we will have made digital more brand-hospitable.  The ARS Group, an ad effectiveness company recently acquired by comScore, brought us a finding we have been preaching into the digital space: creative is four times as important as media weight in driving ad effectiveness. What are we doing to help brand advertisers tell great, moving, memorable stories? We're super-clever at getting impressions to cookies with specific targeting characteristics, on demand, and in boiling cost out of the equation. Where is the story of media, vehicle, and creative engagement?

As we shift inventory to the exchange model, aren't we moving away from a branded advertiser appeal, not toward one?

For me, the bottom line is this. I do not believe there is a "magic metric" that will level the TV/digital playing field (if I did, we'd be cooking it up as I type). There must be a simpler and more compelling sales story for digital, a better fundamental set of benefits to pitch.    We feel like we don't have the right metrics, because we don't have the right narratives.  But once the narrative (or narratives) is in place, the metrics (if new ones are needed) will emerge.  In fact there will be a robust and competitive market for creating them.  But you cannot force the creation of a magic metric to solve a problem of narrative.  Put the narratives in place, though, and the metrics will beat a path to your door.

8 comments about "The Story Of Us".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Doug Pruden from Customer Experience Partners, July 13, 2010 at 3:41 p.m.

    I'm afraid that your up against more than just a matter of measurement. Television (and even radio probably) is show biz. If you're on the client or the agency side it's having your picture taken with the director and the talent. It's the way we have always done it. It's still big bucks and big thrills. It's giving the times and dates to your wife, your kids, your neighbors, and your mother and telling them to watch YOUR spot. Online is much more like direct mail. It can be proven to be highly effective, but it's not likely to be supported with the big budgets.

  2. Tara Coomans from Akamai Marketing, July 13, 2010 at 3:57 p.m.

    Josh -

    I believe that marketers are only now beginning to see how to create engaging stories online, but the ideal way to create an online story is through multiple platforms and tools. For example, I am constantly reminding my clients that social media does not work in a vacuum and that social media isn't a campaign, its a story and an engagement technique.

    Its true, placing an ad (TV, Radio, Digital) is easier, but creating a digital story using ads, email, social media, is the branding tool of tomorrow. And it will be much more measurable. Eventually, I believe you'll see that TV and radio are support tools for strategic digital storytelling.

  3. Joshua Chasin from VideoAmp, July 13, 2010 at 6:56 p.m.


    Great comment. I think you're on to something.

  4. Paul Neto from Crowd Science, July 14, 2010 at 11:02 a.m.

    Great article. I fully agree on the need for 'storytelling' and having a story that can be remembered. Online advertising has been working with a broken ad unit from the beginning - the banner. Basic fundamentals of advertising and marketing dictate that some level of experience is required. This is why the TV ad unit is so good at telling a story and it is much easier to remember a good commercial than a good banner. Digital still needs to mature and evolve a proper ad unit that is not merely a banner. There are signs of this taking place and I anticipate over the next while this will accelerate.

  5. Dimarco Stephen from Compete, July 14, 2010 at 12:20 p.m.

    Josh -

    Please oh please don't let the industry off the hook that easy! Effective, compelling, engaging creative has always been important; unfortunately (most of the time) brands and their agencies don't know if they created "a golden execution" until the campaign has been in-market for some time. That's not new news, so I don't expect it to be the secret that opens the floodgates for new digital advertising dollars. Plus, I need my job just as much as you need yours!


  6. Mark allen Roberts from Out of the Box Solutions, LLC, July 14, 2010 at 11:22 p.m.

    Interesting article,
    The key is your brand promise "story" .
    You must be more intentional than ever before. Fail to be intentional and the market will brand you by default.

    I share this, in the form of a story in my book ; Branding Backwards that you can download at

    Mark Allen Roberts

  7. Jason Deal from Initiative, August 4, 2010 at 10:28 p.m.

    Fresh perspective. Anybody got ideas on the narrative solution?

  8. Rob Tait from Silent Joe, August 8, 2010 at 4:41 p.m.

    While I'm coming late to this article, which I liked very much, I don't think it's all that difficult to create compelling brand narrative online. You just have to step away from the genre's that have dominated traditional media. For instance at Fresh Baked we create branded web shows for marketers such as Johnson & Johnson and ConAgra Foods in Canada. The key is weaving the brand story into a broader piece of entertainment that satisfies both the viewer (they'll choose to watch it) and the objectives of the marketer in getting a story out. Not appropriate for all needs, but great for brand building.

Next story loading loading..