Friday, June 19, 2009

The New Stickiness: Studies Highlight Competing Sources of Online Ad Impression Performance

In the beginning, there was the CPM - that enduring measurement of how many thousands of people were exposed to an advertisement as a benchmark for gauging its value. But with the rise of online advertising, CPM impression measurements began to compete with metrics such as Cost Per Click, the number of people who actually used a link on an ad to visit an advertiser's Web site. Here at last was a metric that proved that online advertising really worked - even though relatively few people actually clicked on these ads.

CPMs were great for advertisers, in that they could be assured that their money spent on ads had a measurable result that they could use to negotiate ad rates that corresponded with revenues in some meaningful way. CPMs still figured in to ad budgets, but it was hard to gauge the real effect of online ad impressions compared to leadgen-like CPC results (cut to frowns on faces of ad agency teams everywhere).

Enter the Online Publishers Association, which has released a new research study conducted by comScore of how consumers respond to online display advertising from 80 major brand campaigns running on 200 major media sites. The study measured the behavior of consumers after having been exposed to online display ads when searching for a brand trademark, traffic improvements on their Web sites and the amount of ecommerce. An OPA slide deck available at Silicon Valley Insider depcits some of the key stats from this study.

The results of the study are quite rosy: about 18 percent of the surveyed consumers searched on the advertised brand within a month period, 29 percent visited the Web sites for those brands, they spent 55 percent more time on pages at that site, clicked on 51 percent more pages and spent more on ecommerce options when available. The overall ecommerce increase was about 7 percent, spanning sectors such as autos and finance as well as others, but when looking at consumer packaged goods the uptick in ecommerce attributed to display ads was 14 percent, with consumer electronics increasing 22 percent (Cue broad smiles at ad agencies everywhere).

Clearly this is good news for media companies looking to transition from print revenues gained from impression-based brand advertising to online markets, as well as for advertisers (and, of course, for comScore, which can sell more research of this kind). Advertising benefits from "hang time" with eyeballs, not always correlating to those nifty eye-movement-scanning human factors tests which imply that nobody's paying attention to ads. The peripheral vision of humans picks up and processes far more than we may imagine, it would seem. The problem, though, is that it's not only ads in major media outlets that are claiming a benefit from this effect - and the comScore research is not the only game in town.

It turns out that Google has also been looking at the value of ad impressions relating to its own content and advertising. As related in B-to-B Online by Sam Sebastian, director of local and B2B markets at Google, a study for General Electric conducted by Enquiro, a B2B search engine marketing firm, revealed that contextual text-based ads appearing in search results also had a positive effect on brand recall. In other words, there is more than one way to skin the brand cat - and many outlets for advertisers to consider.

Moreover, as Google's own research indicated, 64 percent of C-level executives from Forbes 500 companies surveyed in their own research were using search at least six times a day themselves to locate business information. So not only is the potential for commerce to be gained from ad impressions not the exclusive domain of traditional media outlets, but it appears that many of the prime decision-makers with budgets are turning to search engines first oftentimes to get the impressions of products and services that they need. The presumption that print is a medium for the elites that many brands seek out as opinion-makers is still valid, but breaking down rapidly.

While the Google and Enquiro research doesn't refute the comScore study, it's a reminder that there are many contexts that advertisers need to think about how to convey brand value - including social media outlets and other venues beyond search engines and publishers' portals. All of this research seems to point out that advertising for brand value still matters in online outlets, even though its payback is challenged by new methodologies. Social media in particular offers a very high ratio on payback in brand investment, even though it does not provide in many instances the mass-scale impact that traditional advertising campaigns deliver.

One interesting example of the power of social media for brand marketers told by David Binkowski, Director of Word of Mouth Marketing at MS&L Worldwide, at a recent meeting of the Social Media Club in New York City, underscored the point that return on investment can still be very different in online venues even when brand impressions count. Binkowski relayed how the manufacturers of the heartburn medication Prilosec had spent big on an advertising campaign to give away tickets for a Super Bowl game one year, but then tried using social media and other Web outlets the next year for their ticket giveaway, spending about one tenth as much in the process. Interestingly, the net results from these two campaigns were about the same. So while everyone can feel good about impression-based advertising working in both traditional and new online outlets, advertising alone is no longer the only game in town for contextualizing brands online.

The good news in all of this, though, is that brands can survive and thrive online when they are using the right tools and putting down their chips appropriately. Traditional media is certainly a big part of that mix, but it's not the only game in town any more. A good page of search results that solves a very focused problem for someone can be a valuable opportunity for a brand to claim some space as a part of that solution. This has to temper enthusiasm for the OPA study somewhat as a tool to increase CPMs based on the value of impressions, but the ability of services such as comScore to quantify ROI on impression-based online advertising may help to give ad agencies a boost in their efforts to benefit more broadly from the switch to digital outlets for marketing.

The ROI value of social media as a tool for brand building is powerful in theory, but the metrics on its performance are still a work in progress and not yet accepted widely in marketing circles. This can be expected to change fairly rapidly, as underscored by a presentation by Josh Chasin, Chief Research Officer for comScore, at that same Social Media Club meeting. With services such as comScore beginning to put the finger on the pulse of cross-platform consumer behavior, marketers are entering a period in which the mysteries of unlocking ROI from online promotions and advertising are unfolding rapidly. Any way you look at it, there's a lot more "stickiness" for brands online than we may have thought previously - and a lot more reasons for marketers to push the limits of what can be done with brand marketing in online environments that much harder.
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