The Biz: Where Science Can't Go

With the advent of the internet and its acceptance as a mainstream media vehicle, one element of media has been more pondered over and discussed than any other: accountability. It can be addressed in a number of different ways, including the verification that advertising ran, the identification of audiences that have seen ads, and the determination of actions taken by audience members after having viewed a message.

But most of the time what's meant is ROI, or return on investment. Traditionally, ROI has been defined as, how much do I get back for every dollar I spend? That's a great question, one of the most important questions a business can ask and seek an answer to. But with the nearly limitless tracking capabilities of the Web, made possible by all of the technologies that are brought to bear on the medium, the question of ROI, of accountability, can really be posed as: What are all of the things I get for my ad dollars?

For instance: Do I get visitors to my site? Consumer information for my database that I can use later? An increase in brand awareness? An uptick in brand favorability? Elevated purchase intent?

But these are too many questions that require too many data points. And people in advertising and marketing these days are simply too busy to try and collect the data to answer marketers' questions.

And so what we all seek is a kind of grand unified theory of accountability - something that will take in all of what it is we want to know about connecting the dots between our advertising and the businesses it supports. That something is advertising effectiveness.

The effectiveness of one's advertising answers all the unknowns about an ad campaign. The different definitions of effectiveness accommodate pretty much all of the questions marketers ask about their advertising.

Do I get visitors to my site? Depends on how effective your advertising is. Do I get consumer information for my database to remarket with later? Depends on the effectiveness of your advertising. An increase in brand awareness? An up-tick in brand favorability? Elevated purchase intent? All of the answers depend on effectiveness.

Media has used a proxy for effectiveness for a long time now. We call it "frequency." At some point in the past, someone decided there was a correlation between the number of times someone was exposed to an ad message and the impact that message would have.

Problem is, frequency is a poor surrogate for effectiveness. It does not, indeed cannot, take into account the time and place of the advertising exposure; the frame of mind of the audiences; who the audience represents; the time of day of the advertising exposure; the cultural milieu in which the ad arrives ... the list goes on. The only thing frequency measures is how many times an audience is, on average, exposed to messaging. Then, conclusions about effectiveness are drawn based on assumptions made about how many times someone needs to be told something before what they are being told sinks in.

The new term applied to determining advertising's effectiveness is "engagement." But that, too, is just a surrogate for advertising effectiveness.

The truth is, the best we are ever going to have are substitutes for effectiveness. And those substitutes will improve as technology develops more tools, and additional research is conducted to educate us about what's going on with audiences, their world, and the things they encounter in that world.

But measures of effectiveness won't ever be perfect. At some point, we'll need to trust the art of human ingenuity and instinct to take us where the science can't go. A media planner and marketer's utopian state of predictive cumulative media effectiveness - assessing all the different media being used for a particular ad campaign - is worthy to strive for, but unrealistic to expect. Think of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle: Reality carries an innate indeterminateness. Or Zeno's Dichotomy Paradox, where I can infinitely half the distance to my goal, but never quite reach it.

Media can and should be made to be a lot more accountable, but will never be so in its entirety.

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