Commentary

Online Branding: The Top Of The Funnel Is More Important Than Ever

It's lonely at the top (of the funnel). Hardly a day goes by when a headline doesn't proclaim the death of Branding at the hands of the almighty and all-measurable Internet.

For example, the title of a recent MediaPost article screamed "Brand Marketing is Dead." Obviously a headline designed to attract attention, but not exactly a nuanced position. "Interaction rates," the passionate author went on to say, "and click stream and repeat visits" are what we should be measuring instead of well-developed metrics like brand awareness, favorability or purchase intent. Around the same time Mark Kvamme of Sequoia Capital was cited in another MediaPost article as saying CPA would be the sales metric of the future.

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These references are just a couple recent examples of a steady drumbeat of Direct Response-focused commentary that has only been intensified by the present financial turmoil. What the authors of this commentary are getting at is that measurement is important and that whenever possible we want to drive toward direct metrics (e.g., ROI). I agree on both counts. But here's our collective challenge: the vast majority of retail commerce--nearly 90% overall in 2008 and much higher for key Brand categories like CPG and Automotive--still takes place offline. Thus, for the majority of marketers evaluated based on their success in driving offline sales, it's a bold statement at best--and simply false at worst--that interaction rates or click stream data or repeat visits (to a Web site) are more useful metrics than proven tools like brand awareness/favorability, purchase intent or even reach and frequency, for that matter. These metrics certainly are not perfect, but they are tested, well-understood and comparable to metrics from other media.

We all know how well online activity in a DR context can be measured. What those of us focused on Brand marketing don't talk about enough is how the Internet also can easily, accurately, and economically facilitate measurement of Brand metrics. Impression delivery, reach and frequency and composition metrics are readily available for those with the right tools/partners. Brand awareness, favorability and other attitudinal variables are also easily, accurately and economically measured online--much more efficiently than they can be measured offline. Finally, econometric measurement is possible for some categories (it's most advanced in CPG); by matching data about individuals' offline purchases to data about their online ad exposure, a statistically valid ROI can be calculated for an online media campaign designed to drive offline sales.

With the advent of econometrics have we reached the holy grail of online measurement? Hardly. Statistically valid econometric measurement requires media budgets well into the 6-figure range for all but the very largest brands. The results are aggregated for the entire campaign (not broken out by individual placements or time periods) and delivered up to 3 months after the media stops running, to accommodate the purchase cycle and calculation time. These state-of-the-art econometric capabilities are an extremely valuable bridge until online budgets get large enough to show up routinely in Marketing Mix Models, but automated creative/placement-level CPA optimization they are not. With the sample sizes, time lags and noise levels involved, they simply can't be.

The foundation is strong, recent progress has been tremendous, and as an industry online Brand continues to improve its measurement capabilities--but we still have a distance to travel. At Brand.net we recommend and manage a portfolio of measurement technologies to keep our clients on the cutting edge, but we also remain realistic about what is possible and practical about how we manage marketing spend given the tools available. So let us measure wherever we can, but not fear to act where we cannot yet measure precisely. And while we evolve, let us remember that Brand marketing fundamentals are as important as ever, even online.

5 comments about "Online Branding: The Top Of The Funnel Is More Important Than Ever ".
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  1. Jonathan Mendez from Yieldbot, January 12, 2009 at 8:57 a.m.

    While there are real issues with building demand gen in digital the brand marketing fundamentals you speak of are metrics from the days of passive media. The web is active media and it is wrong to make an assumption that active metrics like clicks, time on site, time on ad, queries, etc. are not useful brand metrics. I say they are better and more advanced than "exposure" metrics.

    The web is a user controlled medium. Measure what people do (and what they don't) and every type of marketing can be optimized.

  2. catherine Wachs, January 12, 2009 at 11:11 a.m.

    However one decides to measure the impact of their marketing efforts, let's not forget that the brand image of the company or service has to act as an umbrella for every effort under it. All user experiences should fit under that big idea, that core of truth the product represents. The experience is just another outgrowth of the brand image, not the other way around.

    I find most clients either lose heart, money or the organizational skills needed to keep all efforts working under the same brand's umbrella. Apple, Nike and Obama's Election Team, to name a few, get it right.

    Measuring it all also calls for synergy of every tool available in our arsenal.

  3. Rob Perrier from Adometry, January 12, 2009 at 3:30 p.m.

    I'd add that somewhere between traditional metrics and econometrics there is a great deal more data that can/should be made available to advertisers (and without the need for a six figure advertising budget). There are numerous opportunities to take commonly accepted measures and move them to the realm of leading indicators. These enhancements can be made through more comprehensive data gathering, advanced demographic sets, etc.

    The calls for the 'death' of display advertising are of course ridiculous, but the move toward ROI for advertisers looking to justify budgets needs to grow in multiple directions otherwise online display advertising will continue to stagnate.

  4. John Grono from GAP Research, January 12, 2009 at 4:41 p.m.

    Hallelujah Andy - you have nailed it. My only quibble is regarding the accuracy of online measurement over a campaign. On any one day online metrics accurately reflect the 'audience'. However over time - even as short as a week - the impact of cookie deletion, multiple computer access etc overstates online unique impressions (and this is assuming that the server data has had all 'non-human' clicks filtered out which is sadly not always the case). Over a month, the overstatement at a total market level is in the order of magnitude of 250%. For example, the monthly 'unique audience' here in Australia is pegged at 41 million people - the problem is we only have a population of 21.5 million not all of which are online! While 'exposure' metrics may not be as 'sharp' as CTRs etc, they at least still reside within the realms of believability.

    John Grono
    GAP Research
    Sydney Australia

  5. Andy Atherton from brand.net, January 14, 2009 at 11:05 p.m.

    Thanks for the feedback and discussion. That’s what this is all about!

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