NEW YORK The advantage and disadvantage for Internet ads has always been the click. On the one hand, its inherent measurability has established the Web as the most quantifiable medium; on the other, it has resulted in Internet ads more geared to response than branding.
Now, advertisers are moving beyond counting clicks and even impressions to get a fuller view of the contribution other, richer forms of digital ads -- from advergames to pre-rolls on videos -- make to eventual sales. The move to highlight engagement could mean a greater emphasis on more creative forms of Internet ads.
"We could get back to storytelling with online creative," said Ian Schafer, CEO of Deep Focus, a New York-based independent digital shop. "It's a great thing for creative because ... we're talking about measuring creative power."
Microsoft, long trailing Google in search advertising, is leading the charge in encouraging advertisers to reconsider how they attribute value to digital media. It has begun testing a new tool, Engagement Mapping, that promises to assign value to all forms of digital advertising preceding an eventual click to the advertiser's Web site
"While Google deserves some credit [for conversions], we know it doesn't deserve all of the credit," said Brian McAndrews, svp for advertiser and publisher solutions at Microsoft.
While search clicks will remain crucial, the system gives additional weight to ads that are richer, larger, and seen more frequently and more recently, executives said. This gives added credit to ads more likely to engage users, even if they don't lead to an immediate conversion.
In many ways, the attribution will then begin to mirror a communications plan, which aims to reach consumers in a variety of ways. "This is much more in line with measuring how these plans are built and how users consume information. The way people would calculate [value] in the past, they'd give all the credit to the last thing consumers did," said Steve Kerho, vp of analytics at Organic. "We know that's missing a whole bunch of pieces."
Of course, moving from gauging a click to an engagement is fraught with risks. For one, most interactions with ads are not as binary as a click, which either happens or doesn't. The amount of time spent and depth of interaction matter, but are more difficult to value. Microsoft hopes to use its data prowess to compare control and test groups to get an accurate parceling of credit for multi-faceted campaigns with complex creative executions. Agencies will also have the ability to adjust the importance (measurable weight) of various ad types, such as putting added emphasis on frequency for a car advertiser whose long sales cycle tilts to repeated ad exposures.
In addition to the inherent risk of measuring something that's not black and white, another potential blind spot is the failure to take into account the continued power of offline media in driving online behavior.
"Any engagement metric, regardless of first, middle or last ad seen, is limited in value if it's contained to the digital marketing ecosystem and ignores other marketing inputs," said Rob Norman, CEO of GroupM Interaction, part of WPP Group.
Other agency executives agree the new tool only gets them part of the way there, and talk of crediting one media form over another is misguided.
"The word credit confuses the purpose of the tool," said Jim Dravillas, executive director of analytics at WPP's Ogilvy & Mather in New York. "That makes it into factions. The purpose is to generate more sales, more conversions and more engagements."
But by giving more weight to activities before the final click, the metrics will inevitably downgrade search's value somewhat. Microsoft has previously questioned what it believes is an overemphasis on search clicks. It published research last August that nearly half of clicks on ads came from people who had already visited the advertiser's Web site. Banner ad clicks have also come under fire for being unrepresentative. Research released this month by Starcom MediaVest Group and comScore found that just 6 percent of the Web population accounted for 50 percent of the clicks. Clickers also tended to have lower income levels.
"More complex campaigns are driving the focus on engagement," said Mike Leo, CEO of Operative, a provider of ad management tools to online publishers. "In general, click-throughs are a horrible measure of an effectiveness of a campaign. They're just a data point."
Brand measurement is squishier. Post-campaign brand studies can provide guidance into performance of display and rich-media ads, but they cannot be used to change campaigns on the fly or determine the right price, according to Deep Focus' Schafer. New methods could balance the need for efficiency with the desire to take a longer-term view of value.
VideoEgg, a rich media ad network, is hoping to lead the charge with its introduction of cost-per-engagement pricing for video display ads. Advertisers only pay when a user initiates a longer brand experience like a video or advergame. Since it only gets paid when users engage, VideoEgg has incentive to show the placements to the right audience.
"Forcing people to click on a banner is not how brand advertising works," said Troy Young, CMO of VideoEgg. "People will not put energy into it. That's why you create portable media experiences. It will make everybody more efficient."