What Brands Can Do With Search Until TV Provides Better Measurement

Here's why search has the best option versus broadcast—for now

Measurability is at the heart of TV’s problem. Getty Images

Broadcast TV has a long, documented list of problems. Ratings have been in slow decline year after year for at least a decade. That slow fall off has accelerated since the beginning of the pandemic, as the ongoing shift in viewership habits towards streaming has rapidly grown

This is happening against the backdrop of clients who are becoming increasingly skeptical of spending money against ads that cannot be measured with clear links to ROI data. Measurement and accountability are not new rallying cries. They too are at least a decade old and are impacting the CPMs television can demand just as much as audience decreases. The upfront marketplace, for example, is a shadow of its former self. It is no wonder that Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer at Procter & Gamble, recently called the upfront process “antiquated and inefficient.”

Measurability is at the heart of TV’s problem when it tries to garner more ad dollars (or at least slow down the drop in ad dollars). Marketing directors are no longer willing to accept approximations of reach, frequency, and the cost to reach 1,000 people as direct substitutes for measured responses that lead to sales.

One of the answers to TV’s measurement problem comes from an unlikely bedfellow: second screens, and more specifically, digital search.  Using a second screen while watching TV is now second nature. It is no longer just something young people do. In fact, Mary Meeker’s latest Internet Trends report estimated that up to 88% of viewers use a second screen, and that 71% of people search for content related directly to what they watch. And therein lies the opportunity for TV.

A great way to measure the effectiveness of a television commercial is to measure whether the ads run in specific programs actually led directly to increases in search volume around the brand.  Why? Because there is solid evidence that increased search volume leads to increased probability of sales in a measurable way. This is not only a good way to judge television’s media impact and efficiency, it is also a good way to judge creative copy effectiveness. Importantly, recent research indicates that this search-spike phenomenon is unique to linear TV among advertising platforms because of linear TV’s continuing ability to expose consumers to an ad at massive scale.

A key problem with TV measurement has been finding a way to judge the effectiveness of advertising creative beyond just attitudinal responses, such as “likeability” or “intention to purchase.” A brand can now measure which variations of copy lead to more searches and bigger search spikes. This approach might be even more important for marketers of bigger ticket items, since about 80% of consumers report that they conduct some kind of search before making big purchases.

It might sound like an obvious approach to start linking TV viewership to eventual sales. But analytics companies are just starting to get a firm grasp on how to measure search spikes connected to commercial placements. They are starting to apply data science and machine learning in the media and advertising space to bring unprecedented sophistication to the measurement of advertising efficacy via search traffic.

By pairing ad occurrence data with time-matched consumer online search behavior, data-analytics company EDO, Inc. has seen that there is often a causal effect between an ad airing on TV and spikes in online searches for the brand/product being advertised.

Advertisers today are required to make data-driven decisions about their campaigns and real-time changes to their TV copy and airing schedules. Without behavioral or predictive data, television spending can be wasted behind the poorly chosen media placements and/or copy that isn’t optimizing interest, engagement or action.

Brian Sheehan is a professor of advertising at Syracuse University and is a member of our Adweek Academic Council.