For many clients, digital media still squarely equates to "direct." Decades of TV research and mere common sense suggest
that if there is a single area where traditional media have an edge on digital, it would be in launching and building brands. You need only compare a 30-second TV spot with a pesky banner ad to get
the drift. The former is far more emotionally engaging and thus better suited for branding; the latter gets click-throughs and is thus built for direct response.
The reality is not so black-and-white. Virtually any online ad worth its pixels challenges the traditional distinctions. A flashy pre-roll video ad for a new Infiniti coupe concurrently raises brand awareness, prompts consideration and requires only a few clicks to schedule a test drive. In other words, it elicits a direct response. A Best Buy rich-media expandable unveils a mini-storefront featuring an array of digital cameras that can be purchased right on the spot, all while upholding the retailer's brand for future consideration. The Travelocity ad copy seems unnoticeable on a busy search-results page - and yet most recent studies agree on the fact that text-only ads generate brand awareness just by being there.
Most important to a researcher's purposes, the outdated Branding-dr dichotomy can dictate how a particular campaign is evaluated. Branding's impact is traditionally discerned through surveys examining perceptions and attitudes - brand recall, attitude to the brand, purchase intent. Such metrics are only obtainable via custom research that costs extra and hence is not performed in many cases. Online, branding campaigns often default to using available but irrelevant metrics, such as clicks, as a measure of campaign effectiveness. While advertisers closely monitor direct-response campaigns on behavioral and financial metrics - visits, sign-ups, cost-per-lead, transactions, cost-per-acquisition and roi - measurement of their branding campaigns is often either meaningless or nonexistent.
However, even when measured up to the highest standards of marketing science, brand building is still no more than an intermediate outcome of an advertising campaign. Historically, brand awareness and favorability became key indicators of success because they filled the measurement gap between exposure to advertising and actual sales.
In the analog media age, what happened with a consumer after seeing a Ford Mustang commercial and before kicking the tires in the showroom was up for heavy debate. The most popular theory, the Hierarchy of Advertising Effects, went like this: Consumers liked the ad, which transferred into awareness and positive attitudes toward the advertised brand, which in turn stimulated purchase intentions, which finally led to actual purchase behavior. Brand awareness and favorability, as measured by surveys, became the best available indicators to evaluate advertising effectiveness.
In the digital world, however, after being exposed to advertising media, various important consumer reactions manifest themselves in the same media environment. The Internet opened up a world of searching, price comparison, consumer reviews and other user resources that have generated hard data proving that consumers are actively considering the advertised model long before they start showing up at the dealerships. Captured on a daily or even hourly basis these events provide significant resources for understanding how communication is working. In fact, they point to the next level of the campaign effects hierarchy, a more advanced one than branding: They indicate consumers' intent to act toward the purchase.
This process is not exclusive to cars or high-end electronics products. As recent studies from Yahoo, Google and Nielsen BuzzMetrics show, packaged-goods campaigns also generate spontaneous and impulsive responses (such as search and buzz) that point out consumer intentions and can be detected online.
In today's industry there is plenty of data that advertisers can tap into to achieve direct accountability for the campaigns that previously were evaluated solely based on branding variables. Both Nielsen and comScore Mega Panels can be mined to connect advertising exposure with behaviors such as search, site visitation and, ultimately, transactions. Major portals Yahoo, aol and msn attract everyone on the Internet and have ad exposure and demographic and behavioral data that can be used (all personally identifiable information removed, of course) for creating giant single-source panels.
Advertisers can draw on these sources along with third-party servers, search trends, data from their own Web servers, etc. Offline events can be tracked through matching of offline and online datasets - statistical fusion of databases by using shared variables or even surveys.
The hardest part is to devise a method for attributing consumer intent manifestations to individual media platforms and campaigns. Starcom MediaVest Group has been working in that direction for the last three years, developing IntenTrack, an ongoing consumer tracking study that monitors consumer media and purchase behavior. The study samples 250 consumers per 30 discrete product categories each week on an ongoing basis and tracks consumers' intent to research, to purchase or recommend more than 200 brands in 29 countries.
The consumer's response to a message is tracked on four dimensions - consideration (curiosity), validation (seeking an opinion), expression (giving an opinion) and exploration (active searching on the Web). Using the data collected from these categories, the IntenTrack identifies communications platforms, media outlets and advertising messages that influence consumer intentions at various points in their purchase cycle intentions.
If any campaign can be measured as a direct campaign, the old distinctions are gone. Advancing from branding to intent allows for a fresh media metrics mindset and is more likely to deliver tangible business results.