The unstoppable march of digital ad spend is a well-documented tale, with IAB recently noting “landmark” growth of more than 20% year over year. With many of the new dollars migrating from TV, it’s obvious this spend will carry brand-building goals and not just direct-response goals. While the relevancy of this bifurcation is debatable — I’d say that if your logo is on a direct-response ad, it’s also a brand ad — it’s helpful to understand how these dollars will be justified by marketers.
The truth is that digital brand measurement hasn’t matured as fast as the digital ad industry as a whole. Yes, we’ve seen much-needed improvement in ad viewability measurement over the last five years, but we’ve been less successful in understanding how brand advertising actually persuades consumers. How are digital ads driving consumers down the brand funnel?
Despite non-stop advancements in digital adtech stacks, the evolution of brand measurement hasn’t kept up; brand studies look the same as a decade ago. While digital ad spend is projected to grow another 19% this year, investment in advertising effectiveness measurement has a drastically lower growth rate.
There are five maturity issues within ad measurement that can get in the way of justifying increased brand advertising spends.
Everyone in the space (advertisers, agencies, publishers) has heard some form of the joke, “You’ll never see a brand-lift study that doesn’t show brand lift.” There’s some sad truth behind this: everyone in the value chain is incentivized to show good news. It’s time to be honest — not all campaigns will work. Agencies aren’t magicians who can drive a significant bump in brand awareness for a 70-year-old household product in a three-month display campaign. Advertisers need to set realistic KPI targets and be honest that some campaigns will be flat. I suggest that chief marketers demand their agencies show a handful of not-great performing campaigns at the end of every year. If there is nothing, then you probably need a new agency.
Clarity of the goal
Some campaigns should measure brand impact, some campaigns should measure sales impact, some should be measuring both. A growing problem is the assumption that sales lift studies are an end-all-be-all for all brand campaigns. Yes, the long-term point of brand advertising is to drive revenue. But the point of a specific campaign may be a step in that process. For example, some luxury goods take years to convince a consumer of their value, so success must be measured along the way. Also, some products are only purchased after a triggering event (e.g., you catch a cold so need a cold relief product), so “consideration” campaigns must keep a product top-of-mind until the purchase is triggered. Since short-term sales are not the universal finish line for campaigns (and since research warns against short-termism for brands), marketing leaders should require thoughtful policies on when a campaign will be judged by a brand outcome versus a sales outcome.
Brand-lift studies have been around for more than 20 years, and after two decades, brands still measure purchase intent by interviewing cash-incentivized survey addicts. That’s obviously nonsense. So, advertisers, agencies, and publishers need to swear off survey addicts. Chief marketers should take a more active role in forcing periodic testing of data quality with brand measurement. One easy way is to add fake brands to your competitive set in surveys. If awareness of them is through the roof, throw out the rest of the data set.
Campaigns versus people
Thousands of “big bar, little bar,” control-versus-exposed bar charts are created for brand campaigns every year. This should be considered table stakes, not the end game. The problem with those disparate KPI bar charts is we don’t see who was actually impacted by a campaign. For instance, if you see 2% lift in ‘awareness’ and 2% lift in ‘purchase intent,' can you assume that these are the same 2% or are entirely separate groups? Marketing leaders should demand consumer-level scoring from campaigns, not campaign-wide reads.
Report cards are not action plans
A shortcoming of those aforementioned bar charts is they end up being a post-mortem, instead of forward-looking. There’s absolutely a place for that, as advertisers should show accountability to KPI goals. However, you can’t automatically optimize a campaign with a report card; for that, you need programmatic audiences built from the underlying campaign measurement. Chief marketers should insist on activating audiences derived from their existing brand measurement, so ad spend is targeted toward persuadable consumers.
As a marketing leader, the ball is in your court. You already know that technology has transformed the digital ad game, but it’s time that technology also transforms how the referees evaluate its play. While brand measurement faces many significant challenges, all are solvable. I’ve never spoken to a brand marketer who says better brand measurement would not pry more brand spend from their wallet, so these fixes could lead to billions more poured into the digital ecosystem.
Chris Kelly is co-founder and chief executive officer of Survata