Effective Digital Ads: A Fragment Of Your Imagination?

Digital media proliferation appears to be infinite. Each year, a “shiny new object” arrives. First it was “rich media,” then video ads, then user-generated content. Now it's social networks, in-game and in-app advertising, and ads with social features. But media time remains finite. People simply have just so many hours a day to consume content.

As each new enticement appears, consumers must make tradeoffs with other media. The teen who once spent his time on a music site may now spend more time on social networks. His father, who once searched for sports updates on a sports Web site, may now primarily use a mobile app.

As people spend more time consuming digital content, their time increasingly shifts and becomes diffused. As the number of digital channels increases, the amount of time anyone can spend on any single channel decreases. The result -- the ability to reach a target audience on any one channel is diminished.

Beyond the challenge of reaching a specific target with an advertising message, marketers’ next challenge is to understand the impact of their digital campaigns.



Measurements miss impact

Digital was supposed to be the medium that measured itself, first with click rates for search and display, then with interaction rates (rich media), completion rates (video), and then social measures -- “likes,” “tweets, re-tweets” and “follows.” But none of these measures answers the question -- how did the campaign impact my brand? -- through increased sales, equity and advocacy.

Survey-based research methods were developed a decade ago to measure the impact of display advertising on awareness and brand perceptions. However, the proliferation of media makes marketing research more difficult. Digital ad research methods that were relevant from 2000-2005 no longer apply. Once it was easy to do ad research online, since digital researchers could choose to randomly serve ads to some people and control ads to others, then survey to measure the effects.

But today it’s much more complicated. One cannot afford to buy control impressions or “go dark” online. Plus, consumers may have been exposed to the same campaign via social networks, YouTube or apps. Control groups have become contaminated as digital campaigns become more complex -- between owned, earned and purchased media -- making experiments virtually impossible to conduct.

Creative quality drives results

These types of research methods were developed when the objective was to prove that digital ads "work." Now, it’s generally accepted that quality advertising will be effective in any medium. Repeated research shows that the main driver of ad effectiveness is creative quality, yet digital media planners still spend much of their time optimizing ad sizes, Web sites and frequency.

So how can researchers help advertisers leverage the fastest-growing medium when we can no longer conduct scientific research with always-on campaigns that are too fragmented for econometric modeling? On the flip side, we cannot go back to lab experiments because we know that in digital, context and mind set play an important role.

We believe that the future of digital research should combine the best of:

1.    A relevant way to assess ads’ creative strengths before going live.  

2.    A natural in-market environment in which one can account for mindset and context, as well as behavior, after exposure to a test ad.

Real-time measurement needed

The best practice is to expose consumers to ads as they naturally surf the Web, which allows for a holistic analysis of consumer response and Web analytics/behavioral data to determine campaign potential. Such a system can leverage creative evaluation to provide insights to the advertiser and to:

•            Deliver results before or just after campaign launch

•            Be flexible enough to account for any size campaign

•            Provide insight into the extent to which a desired audience is likely to visit certain Web sites

•            Provide an understanding of which contextual exposures work best against marketing objectives

•            Provide a sense of publisher overlap to determine the percentage of your target that would be exposed on two or more Web sites

The goal of a real-time measurement system is to deliver a better understanding of digital ROI so clients can optimize digital advertising spending.  With continued, rapid media proliferation, we recognize that research methods need to quickly evolve. 

We hope to help advertisers experiment to enhance the quality, effectiveness and offline synergy of digital advertising. Only by working together can advertisers and market researchers make sense of an increasingly fragmented media landscape.

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