You can slice a Web site by unique viewers. You can cut it by page views. You can even measure by time spent on a site.
At the end of the day, though, a media planner is still going to have to do the heavy lifting and figure out if a publisher can provide the very specific and instructive type of ROI an advertiser wants. In a simple world, it sure would be nice to scan a list of the biggest online publishers by eyeballs and rate cards to see which Web destinations deliver the biggest bang for the buck. But whoever said life was easy?
Online media buying and planning is still much more of an art than a science. Marketers often have vastly different goals with each online campaign - some want to generate leads, some need to sell products and some simply want to get their name out there. Despite the accountability and measurement features of Internet advertising, media agencies say they must choose sites specifically for each client and each campaign, rather than simply turning to a standard list of sites with strong ROIs. Perhaps such a list may be impossible to compile.
"We can't look at it in those terms. We wouldn't be doing our jobs if we did that," says Adam Kasper, senior vice president and director of digital media for Media Contacts, a division of Havas. "We would have decided years ago that these three sites worked best and then we wouldn't be looking at other opportunities the way we should. I don't want to say we start from scratch, but every campaign is individually based on goals and changes in the publishing industry. Clients and advertisers are always changing and updating and repositioning their brands and product and we do the same in the media planning process. We constantly are reevaluating what we are doing."
If a direct response client were to simply paint by numbers for an online campaign and choose sites based solely on historical yield, the marketer might saturate that audience and results would drop, Kasper says. Even on a portal like Yahoo or a large site like nytimes.com, marketers run the risk that visitors will have already heard their message and grow weary of the brand. That's why media agencies need to go under the hood and tinker.
Here is a look, under the hood, at both the scientific and the artful sides of online planning and buying.
Kicking the Tires
Broadly speaking, media agencies first evaluate sites from one of two perspectives. Is the campaign a branding one or a direct response one? Brand-based or more experiential type clients like a movie studio use different criteria because their goals are less immediately tangible, says Michael Hayes, senior vice president of interactive at Initiative North America. On the other hand, direct response campaigns are completely tied to sales, leads or traffic, as examples.
"They need to pay at a certain cost," Hayes explains. "So we are evaluating on two criteria - what their yield is in terms of ROI and the quality of that yield."
For instance, the goal of a direct response campaign might be to reach a core demographic, while the "quality goal" might be the average order size.
Two sites might generate the same number of leads, but one site could yield a much larger order size. "Then that site would have more users rather than just shoppers, so the yield and the quality of the sales and the quality of the conversion is all how we measure," Hayes says.
Brand advertisers, by contrast, are looking for reach and frequency and also how well they hit their target audience. Results are harder to compute in these cases. In fact, brand campaigns don't put much weight on ROI.
Economy vs. Performance
Online media buys are an intricate and delicate balancing act. Clients and agencies start first with what a marketer is willing to pay to get a lead or a sale. That sets the ROI.
But some marketers place more weight on certain metrics than others. The key is to learn what is most important for each client and what their risk tolerance is, says Greg Smith, the chief operating officer for Neo, Ogilvy's digital and direct media agency. Ogilvy clients include IBM, Cisco and Six Flags. "For instance, if you pushed and it went from $55 to $60 cost per action, you might get more leads, so if you paid $5 more and we could double your number of leads, is it worth it?" he asks. The answer will differ by marketer.
To find the answer, the four questions Ogilvy asks a client are: Who is the target audience, what are the marketing goals, what media can accomplish those goals and what is the measure of success? "We spend time hammering down the measure of success," Smith says. "Say we agree it's a cost per lead of $10, but then a client could say, 'Could you put a little branding in that?' Then we need to say, 'That's not what this is about.' You need to stay focused on this metric of success."
Royal Caribbean, a Media Contacts client, will focus some online campaigns on lead generation, some on branding and some on bookings, Kasper says. "A lead generation campaign probably won't overlap with a direct booking. A direct booking campaign is going to be optimized based on our cost per conversion, the cost per booking," he adds.
To determine which online publishers can deliver the best ROI for a particular marketing message, the agency evaluates the potential sites and whether they match the advertiser's target audience. Media Contacts relies on a host of data sources, such as comScore, Nielsen and Dynamic Logic. "We have some relatively complex support systems to help us make decisions based on mind-set and audience habits that we use to help understand how the audience is making their purchase decisions," Kasper says.
At the end of the day, what matters is the individual marketer's goal. For instance, a client might be satisfied with being the 12th result in a Google search because that placement costs less than being first, Smith adds.
There's also a harsh reality to online planning. Bigger publishers like AOL, Yahoo and msn are known quantities, so marketers are sometimes more comfortable placing ads on those familiar sites. "There may be some cool little sites that get a good ROI, but we may not have time to evaluate them. So sometimes it's easier to put the buy into a big site," Smith says.
Pay at the Pump
ROI is a dynamic metric and it's campaign specific, says Jim Forni, vice president and executive producer for Curium, a division of interactive agency Critical Mass. For instance, Critical Mass client Hyatt Resorts ran an extensive Web video project in 2007 to acquire leads.
The hotel chain wanted to make inroads with vacation travelers and families. So for Hyatt, Critical Mass concocted the "Ultimate Adventure Challenge," which was both an online reality adventure series and a contest that started in the spring of 2007. Hyatt invited Web visitors to submit videos of themselves and their families, making a pitch for why they should be selected as one of four families to participate in the challenge and win 50 nights at any Hyatt, or 10 years' worth of vacations. Hyatt then picked four as the "cast" for its Web reality show and brought them on a two-week adventure challenge to three different Hyatt resorts in June 2007.
Critical Mass posted a new episode every five days starting August 16 and finished on September 15 on hyatt.com. During the run of the show, about 170,000 people registered on Hyatt's Web site, providing a list of leads the hotel could market to going forward. Also, the videos were viewed more than 600,000 times and each viewer watched an average of three to four Web episodes. The cost to acquire those 170,000 names via the adventure challenge was three to four times less than it would have cost to generate those same leads through other campaigns, both online and direct response, Forni says.
Advertisers also need to remember the new paradox of the Internet: It's getting both smaller and bigger. Internet penetration is slowing, but the number of sites is growing, says Bill Tancer, general manager of global research at online measurement firm Hitwise.
That's why advertisers and agencies are being more methodical and detailed in their buys. "Advertisers in this increasingly competitive landscape must abandon the shotgun approach of simply looking to acquire as much traffic as possible to their site through tools such as broad network ad buys, and instead focus on understanding who their target customer is and take advantage of online behavioral data to first understand [and] then target that user and draw them to their site," Tancer says.
Many are doing just that and finding that their slice of the pie is just a little bit tastier.