The promise of interactive advertising is its susceptibility to measurement. But the question of just how—and what—to measure is as complicated as ever. In the world of online advertising, standardization remains as elusive as the perfect ad campaign.
"In many ways the online industry has been its own worst enemy," says Charles Buchwalter, vice president of client analytics, Nielsen/NetRatings, and previously vice president of media research at Jupiter Media Metrix in Seattle. "If each site accepts different kinds of technology and in different ways, even people who get over the hump of whether they should advertise online find it easier to buy $100,000 of TV than $20,000 online."
A flurry of activity last spring in the research and measurement industries seems likely to make counting and tracking somewhat less complex. In June, comScore bought Media Metrix's Internet Audience Measurement Service. Nielsen/NetRatings purchased Media Metrix's ad measurement unit, AdRelevance; AC Nielsen's eRatings service; and DoubleClick's audience measurement tool @plan. Ad measurement firm CMRi purchased the online ad tracking company Evaliant Media Resources. CMRi and comScore also entered into a co-marketing and co-development venture for certain data and services.
ComScore tracks ad performance as opposed to ad effectiveness—in other words, not simply who clicked, but who, two weeks later, went to the store and made a purchase. "Did they buy more Kraft cheese in the grocery store?" asks Russ Fradin, vice president of corporate development at comScore. "That's the grail." Yet even this question remains open to interpretation. Did who buy more Kraft cheese? Were they in the United States? Did they see an ad at home or at work? What if they saw the ad in a library, where no one is measuring?
"The issue that surrounds the industry is, we become victims of our own ability to track," says Stacey Deziel, senior vice president, media director, FCBi, the interactive arm of Foote, Cone and Belding, which is part of Interpublic. So, if agencies are sometimes unsure how to interpret the overwhelming amount of data they receive, what exactly do they promise their clients in terms of measurement?
"We'd never use impression as a sole metric to support a campaign," says Eric Valk-Peterson, vice president of media services at itraffic, owned by Agency.com. Instead, the agency picks a particular metric based on the client's objective, such as branding or generating sign-ups. "Our measurement strategy ties directly to the measurement on which we're basing the ROI. We'll only plan to a metric that we can measure effectively." Adds Deziel: "It's really important to know how you're going to be measuring the program. Is it going to be evaluated on the number of impressions, on the number of consumers you get to come to your site? Are you going to be doing brand tracking studies? Are you collecting data? This whole medium is kind of like a moving target."
As the online medium continues to mature, measurements may increasingly come to resemble those in the offline world. "The next big thing will be the inclusion of offline spending data," says Marc Ryan, an AdRelevance analyst. "So you can get not just what GM did on the Internet, but what they did on TV. Once all the data is in one place, you can go to agencies and advertisers and you've got a tool that helps to remove that barrier between the offline and online world." For many agencies and their clients, applying offline planning measurements to online advertising is a step in the right direction. "That's an area where I'd like to see more standards," says Valk-Peterson. "GRPs [gross rating points], TRPs [total rating points], developing a universally accepted model for reach and frequency—there are groups that are working to develop this, but it's far from standard at this point."
But while standardization of research methodologies is unlikely, traffic and even impressions may soon be measured according to universal standards. Last winter, the Interactive Advertising Bureau released a series of guidelines titled "Interactive Audience Measurement and Advertising Campaign Reporting and Audit Guidelines." The IAB sought first of all to provide uniform definitions of terms, to ensure that everyone is counting the same thing. "Most if not all of the ad servers are either in or coming into compliance," says IAB president and CEO Greg Stuart, who is gearing up for the second phase of the program: the release early this fall of a compliance document for sites to provide to buyers and planners. "The first stage focused on consistency and the next step is accuracy," he says.
The IAB guidelines—meticulously developed with input from ABC Interactive, the Media Ratings Council and the Advertising Research Foundation—appear to be gaining popularity, despite the hurdles. "The speed with which we can come to agreement is going to end up benefiting everyone in the long run," says Deziel. "This is probably one of the most powerful mediums we have, and it really is frustrating when you get bogged down in the technology. It's a benefit and a curse at the same time."