Untangling the web

Until recently, measuring online performance lacked the sort of sophisticated metrics used by traditional media. Martin Croft reports on the steps being taken towards an integrated approach

The number of people who visit your website, what they look at when they are there, and how they interact with the content are key considerations when measuring the success – or failure – of online marketing. But marketers are increasingly being bombarded with myriad metrics for measuring the return on investment for their internet spend.

Phil Christer, marketing director at media agency Zed Media, says: “Measurement is a longstanding and ongoing issue for the online advertising industry. Online is still very different from traditional media. For press, the ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulations) audits give a solid indication of a publication’s audience, but the online space still lacks a universally recognised measurement metric.”

This may be about to change. Last month, Jicims (Joint Industry Committee for Internet Measurement Systems) appointed Peter Bowman – a media expert with agency and client-side experience, including spells at WCRS, MPG and Flextech – as its first general manager. He is tasked with transforming Jicims into a standalone company.

Identifying trends
The company was created by the Association of Online Publishers, the Internet Advertising Bureau, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising and the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers to develop online measurement and media planning tools that could stand alongside similar metrics for press, television and radio advertising – such as the National Readership Survey (NRS), Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB) and Radio Joint Audience Research (Rajar).

The first fruits of Jicims will be a quarterly online population survey, prepared in conjunction with NRS, to be published this month.

But, as Christer observes, Jicims “is still some way from reaching a conclusion. Until then, we are reliant on other sources to plan effectively. At the moment, information comes from media owners, and data, from tools like Comscore, Nielsen NetRatings and TGI, which give limited reach and frequency information.”

Alternatively, he says: “Measurement data from ad-serving systems is a good place to start. Past performance is the accepted indicator for planning future activity in traditional media. It allows a media planner to look at impressions delivered, unique impressions and from a direct-response perspective, drill right down into the nitty gritty of click-through, cost-per-click and the all important cost-per-action.

“Unfortunately, this data cannot be solely relied on as there are still many variables to take into account, and a huge repository of historical data is required to start identifying trends. It is also an extremely complex task to pull all of this information together and extract cohesive answers for planners and marketers, which is why testing, experimenting and learning within online advertising is so important.”

Andrew Hood, managing director of online measurement firm Lynchpin Analytics, says: “The key to assessing website performance is to take an integrated approach to metrics. Performance indicators, like revenue, are a great way of measuring website success, but marketers should not omit ‘softer’ metrics such as enquiry numbers, support requests and engagement with materials. These metrics add to customer loyalty and lifetime value indicators.

Grading customer quality
“By looking at the interactions of customer/visitor behaviour over a period of time, you can see what is driving loyalty and also get an idea of the quality of the customer. For instance, are they a high-value returning customer or a one-off low-value customer?”

Hood adds that marketers should not ignore the effect offline can have on website performance: “Offline still has an inherent part to play in the marketing mix, with offline affecting online conversions and vice-versa. For example, © researching a product online and then going into a store to buy it or, alternatively, a direct mail campaign driving traffic to a website.”

Hood adds: “An integrated metrics approach (including the interactions and reactions of channels) is a key way of making informed decisions for successful website performance.”

Richard Foan, managing director of ABC Electronic, says: “Standard metrics measure unique users, page impressions, visits, ad impressions and ad clicks, and allow advertisers to exploit online opportunities with confidence. From the onset, traffic statistics give you an idea of what size audience you’re talking to, and are vital to see the bigger picture and potential of the investment. Universally comparable traffic statistics are fundamental to providing the building blocks of Web measurement.”

Traffic statistics
However, according to Foan, marketers need to gather other data about what people do on their websites. Traffic statistics should be used to “underpin audience centric research, which gives greater insight into the users of digital media. Both these components of measurement are at their most valuable when used together.”

Ash Snijder Majumder, a director at agency Fullsix argues that one of the major strengths of digital is that when used in harness with offline marketing, it offers a way to measure the impact of offline activity as well as online. He says: “Offline has become a highly measurable medium, especially as it works so effectively when combined with online. Brands that have an offline and online presence can then use the two to compare popularity of different channels.”

This means that measuring online activity becomes even more important. Majumder adds: “Generic measurements can take the form of key words counted, frequency of visits, level of utilisation and efficiency of the users. Marketers can also measure content – where users come on to the site, how many pages they visit and which pages they bookmark or put into favourites.

“They can also observe when their users return to pages – although this can’t necessarily be counted as a Web ‘hit’, it can indicate if a page is popular. Other measurement tactics include traffic – number of unique visitors, days and times visited, visitor retention and duration and number of pages viewed – and key words searched and referrers (the sites where visitors have come from).”

Majumder adds: “Online data capture is another important measurement technique for marketers, from registrations – if supported with persuasive communications – to the ‘contact us’ section. This allows marketers to assess loyalty, the geographical origin of visitors and the site’s ability to retain customers.”

Online behaviour
Foan argues that researching online behaviour needs to be done in tandem with classic traffic measurements. He says: “Old and new metrics combined give marketers the best insights into the performance of websites and as such both are fundamental to making the most informed decisions.”

George Nimeh, managing director of Iris Digital, agrees that traffic alone will not tell marketers what they need to know. He says: “Understanding why people are visiting an online destination is of much more value, and online surveys can provide this richer data. Marketers should use this to tailor the online experience.”

But some experts believe online measurement should also be about measuring what people are saying about a brand – which may not happen on a website you own or even on a website that you are buying advertising space on. Discussions involving your brand could be happening in forums and chatrooms, blogs and on social networking sites.

Liz Faber, director of Golley Slater Digital, argues that online measurement needs to focus on user-generated content (UGC). She says: “The tools are readily available for people to create their own content, from personal blogs, networking on MySpace, shared knowledge in Wikipedia, videos on YouTube, peer reviews on Amazon, to whole worlds in Second Life.”

Faber suggests that UGC will become the most accurate method of measuring the impact of online marketing. She points out that YouTube is now offering marketers co-branded channels “at around £25,000 a pop – but that’s not what the audience respects. Brands have to understand and embrace what the medium is about: content generated by the people for the people. And, ironically, being unbranded is the smart way to approach this audience.

Control the uncontrollable
“Kids in their bedrooms mashing up TV ads, creating their own take on a brand, is the sort of uncontrolled use that would once drive marketers and their legal departments to despair, but is now recognised as one of the most powerful ways to get people to engage with a brand.”

Nevertheless, even providing such a proliferation of UGC could be measured, how can the results be turned into the kind of metrics that marketers and media buyers can base informed decisions on? After all, marketers are having enough problems getting their heads around existing metrics for the more traditional (if traditional is a word that can be used about the internet, which, as a medium, is barely 13 years old) online world.

As Zed Media’s Christer says: “Despite online no longer being a new medium, marketers are still more comfortable with traditional media measurement tools, which means even when an online planning currency is in place, it will take time for it to be fully adopted – never mind understood – by the marketing community.”

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