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Making More Than a Good Impression

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NEW YORK As marketers continue to grapple with how to best make use of social media, moves are afoot to change the way success and failure are measured. And as the point of advertising in these venues is to engage users, the current dominant forms of measurement, based on clicks and impressions, fall short.

This has led a coterie of ad sellers and buyers to try new measurement and pricing methods for ads in environments much different than the typical content sites of the first wave of the Internet. Instead of looking at ad impressions, they are putting more weight on time spent with a brand, downloads of applications and their spread, and user-initiated views of videos. The hope is to find a way to prove to brands that advertising in these environments really works, and at a time when marketers are cutting budgets and have little patience for campaigns lacking direct evidence of success.

The moves are part of a larger debate going on in the digital ad world: How can the Internet be made to work for brand advertising? From the start, Internet advertising has largely mirrored its offline media counterparts. Display advertising, the most common model, has followed the adjacency model of print; video ads have mimicked TV commercials. Internet ads have also adopted the pricing of offline: cost-per-thousand impressions.

The sticking point with digital media is how vast it is. Page views -- and impressions -- can be generated easily. Breaking an article into three pages, for instance, will make four banner impressions into a dozen. What's more, the Internet has variations like placement of the ads on the page that make a one-size-fits-all impressions approach imperfect.

"Reach and frequency is a legacy of a one-way medium," said Troy Young, CMO at VideoEgg, an ad network that shifted to cost-per-engagement pricing 13 months ago.

VideoEgg is betting that it can use data to "optimize for engagement" in social media environments for brands like Honda, Warner Bros. and Unilever. It aims to figure out, for instance, what ad messages users are likely to choose to play a game; advertisers pay only when users take action.

Others are trying variations of this approach. Matt Freeman, former CEO of Tribal DDB, joined GoFish -- since renamed Betawave -- as CEO in June 2008 to take its portfolio of virtual world, animation and social-networking sites and create the type of advertising that caters to brands by capturing attention. For instance, Betawave digitized Sears' back-to-school line and introduced it into teen virtual worlds. It eventually wants to structure deals based on how much attention it can deliver, rather than impressions.

"It's like going to a 3-D movie without the glasses," Freeman said. "The Internet is more dimensional, but [for the most part] measurement criteria are the same as a one-way medium. You don't have the glasses so you're not appreciating the dimensions."

Many buyers seem to agree. Ian Schafer, CEO of Deep Focus, said impression measurement misses the real power of many social-media programs that are, at their root, designed for engagement.

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