Insight: A Modest Proposal

Jonathan Swift, the 18th-century author of "Gulliver's Travels," once quipped that "A fool can ask more questions than the wisest man can answer." Each time I think of that perceptive and witty remark, it still makes me smile. But to be honest, whenever I start a completely new total communications project, I am awash with questions.

Ad effectiveness has been a perennial concern. Earlier this year, the UK's Institute of Practitioners in Advertising issued a pithy summary of 880 ad effectiveness case studies entitled "Marketing in the Era of Accountability." It is a summary of a series, "Advertising Works," extending over 20 years and has added greatly to the industry's body of knowledge on ad effectiveness.

If you turn to chapter five of this summary review, a table illustrates the campaign effectiveness of one ad medium vs. two media and so forth, up to five media. The commentary states in highlighted bold: "The data suggests that around three advertising media is optimal for a typical campaign ...."

Ah, the wonderful simplicity of having just three channels or even five channels to evaluate! In total communications the number of channels to assess is quasi-infinite.

With total communications, if you can think of a means of communications, whether it's television advertising at one level or video advertising in a doctor's waiting room on a different one, then it's a medium that could be considered. This near-infinite range of channel possibilities represents one of the major issues to be resolved in all total communications projects. Typically, by focusing on the core communications issue, we can put everything in perspective.

At Universal McCann, we use a variety of research techniques and studies to understand the relative role and value of each channel or touchpoint.

In one approach, using a single large sample base to interrogate six major market categories, we were curious to gain a greater understanding of two related areas:

>> Do the primary touchpoints to influence consumers vary significantly by each market category?

>> Within each market category, do those channels alter significantly by demographic?

The study examined six different market categories ranging from grocery products to alcohol to consumer electronics. We interrogated these six market types with a consistent list of 20 channels or touchpoints across advertising media, sales promotion, word-of-mouth, sponsorship and direct marketing.

At a superficial level, the survey results stated an expected outcome: The most powerful contact is word-of-mouth, specifically recommendations from friends and family, across all six market categories.

However, when we delved into demographics across age and gender-wide differences, a whole new world of preferences began to emerge. As an example, if we look at one common demographic, men under 35, across each of the six market categories, the most relatively influential (by per capita index) channels are:

Home Electronics:Product comparison Web site

Cell Phones: Brand Web site

Groceries: Product placement on TV or movies

Personal Health Care:TV advertising

Personal Grooming:TV advertising

Liquor: Sponsorship of music events and concerts.

Examining the whole category data alone, one could not predict such potential variations by category for men under 35 - and this variation in channel preference is seen across all major demographic groups. For instance, women ages 35 to 54 had a completely different set of channel preference indices for each of these six market categories. On home electronics, their highest indices were direct mail and magazine ads, but for personal health care it was product Web sites and requested e-mails.

So questions for total communications go well beyond being category relevant: We should assume each micro-feature and facet of a campaign needs to be scrutinized. In particular, with a byzantine set of channel options available for all marketers, even within a very precisely defined category, channel selection must be assiduously targeted to the tightest sub-demographic, too.

Graeme Hutton is senior vice president and director of consumer insights at Universal McCann. (

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