Under constant surveillance

mouseThe focus on measurement of digital media is switching from ‘last click counts’ to the ‘customer journey’, which has led to the development of metrics to track every stage. Martin Croft reports

Digital media has revolutionised the marketing world, and online advertising has come from literally nothing to claim a huge slice of the total media spend in barely 15 years.

The great advantage of digital media – whether it is online display advertising, paid-for search, search optimisation, e-mail or affiliate marketing – is the ease with which activity can be tracked and effectiveness measured.

However, Veerle De Lombaerde, vice-president of network operations Europe for ad network AdConion, cautions: “The greatest thing about online is it’s fully accountable. The worst thing is it’s fully accountable.”

De Lombaerde says the big problem is not the measuring itself, but making sense of what is being measured and understanding how it actually relates to the whole of a brand’s marketing activity.

Too often, marketers focus on the final act that directly leads to the sale or conversion – in search terms, this is sometimes called “last click counts”.

But that last click may have been preceded by a dozen other marketing communications, all of which had some impact on the final purchasing decision – and many of which may not even have been delivered in an online form.

Kevin Allen, head of planning at Proximity London, points out that the final purchasing decision is “the end result of a stream of consumer consciousness and cognition that may have its source in beliefs and behaviours that were formed from multiple inputs and impressions over a long period of time”.

According to Mike Teasdale, planning director of digital ad agency Harvest Digital, last click wins is fairly discredited, but the shift, particularly in pay per click search marketing to paying on a cost per action (CPA) basis, means it s hard to see it going away. However, he argues: “We need more sophisticated ways to plan campaigns – CPA is an unreliable way to allocate budgets.”

Matthew Mills, director of search at digital and direct response media agency EquiMedia, agrees. “It is great that we are now getting past the last click debate and starting to work on better, more informative ways of looking at what influences consumer behaviour.

“Analysing the last click before purchase is useful but has never been the best way to track or attribute value to online media, and it’s certainly not the key to driving insight.”

As De Lombaerde says: “There tends to be a disproportionate attribution to search and also to the last ad viewed. That is dangerous because it ignores all the other previous exposures.”

The big topic of discussion for many in the online advertising industry is the “customer journey” – the series of steps the customer takes from the beginning of the purchasing process to the end of it. A great deal of effort is being put into developing systems that will look at all of the data collected from all of the digital “touchpoints” along the route, and come up with some kind of metrics to allocate the glory and the rewards fairly.

Accurate measuresFor example, Matt O’Brien, of digital agency Cheeze, says: “We’ve been working on technology that tracks up to the last ten digital exposures before the final conversion. We’re working with JayWing [a data and analytics agency that is part of the same group as Cheeze] to develop accurate measures for all the different parts. Potentially, the system will allow individuals to take the full impact of online display into account.”

Tom Morgan, managing director of affiliate network AffiliateFuture, points out that traditional ways of monitoring consumer behaviour online are losing their efficacy.

“We’re seeing a growing number of consumers disabling cookies and so denying online marketers the ability to accurately understand and manage the online journey. The ability to measure is wholly reliant on the information collected and if cookies are blocked then the measures that result are inaccurate,” says Morgan.

Online conversionsIn the affiliate industry, this could be disastrous – sites that deliver click-throughs or sales may not get their commission, while brands will get entirely the wrong idea of where their online conversions are coming from.

Morgan argues: “There is a real danger that a crucial number of clicks that lead to conversions will be overlooked and marketing budgets may shift away from high performing marketing partners because their previous business-generating clicks weren’t tracked.”

AffiliateFuture has developed its own cookie-free tracking solution, VeraciTag, and a comparison between it and cookie tracking suggests that a minimum of 7% of affiliate-generated transactions are not being counted.

Mills at EquiMedia says: “To date, the industry has pretty much ignored every action and decision that consumers make before the last click because tracking every action and exposure and attributing value to online and offline media is difficult. At least we are now debating the relative value of every touchpoint and exposure that consumers have to our messages and brands.”

Allen at Proximity London asks: “Why do we obsess in trying to isolate online as if it could ever be a closed-loop system?”Even for pure online brands such as Amazon or Expedia, the visible part of the customer journey is the tip of the iceberg. The point is, nobody’s trying to isolate my physical journey from door to store, or at least claiming such an exercise would provide a meaningful key performance indicator.”

Amy Lennox, a partner in integrated media planning agency Trinity Communications and former head of OMD Digital, sounds a note of caution over the rush to digitally track the whole customer journey. “There is so much information available online that it becomes a very tricky business unpicking a customer’s journey,” she observes.

influential clickLennox adds: “If a cookie has been dropped on a voucher code site, with no actual meaningful voucher code – as often happens – does that count as an influential click or impression? In my view no, but you may still pay an affiliate for that lead if a sale does somehow result further down the line, regardless of other influences.”

She proposes two solutions to the conundrum of how to measure what factors influence online sales. The first is straightforward quantitative testing – if I remove X, what happens? “We would soon start to see the value of certain direct elements.”

The second is a more qualitative approach, to actually follow customers and see how they go through the whole decision making process and what influence different elements of online advertising have on that process.

Teasdale adds: “Technology such as Atlas engagement mapping lets us look back from purchases and see what other activities were significant. This means looking at the standard measures of brand impact – reach and frequency – so you can look across a campaign and discover whether increasing reach or frequency could improve sales.”

But the real problem comes when you throw offline media into the mix. While mechanisms for measuring the impact of offline media are improving, we do not yet have the kind of retinal scanning technology that featured in the Tom Cruise film Minority Report where posters could track who was looking at them and deliver tailored, three-dimensional messages.

Watching the TV watchers has long been a dream for the ad industry, and the use of web URLs in TV ads can offer some measure of trackability – if searches using a particular ad slogan go through the roof within minutes of an ad running on TV, then you can assume that the two are linked.

Lennox says: “We have seen web traffic literally double overnight as a result of a TV campaign with Alton Towers. I don’t think enough people take that impact of offline on online seriously enough yet, but it absolutely shows that TV is still a very valuable medium.”

But the problem is that we cannot measure offline media in the same way as we can online. Mark Whitmore, managing director at Swordfish, argues: “We are still a very long way off being able to track which individual watches a TV ad and then logs on and makes a purchase. In fact, it will probably never come.”

But he believes: “Marketers that are switched on are already working to a model that assigns value to every element of what they do, and gain significant insight from observing traffic boosts after TV ads or PR stories that appear.”

inexact scienceOn the other hand, Whitmore admits: “The science of evaluating these responses can be inexact and heavily assumption-based, over time assumptions can be backed-up or disproved, and the picture becomes ever-more accurate.”

EquiMedia’s Mills says: “The solution is to be far more intelligent about analysing consumer behaviour. Measure everything, and understand what you are measuring. You can then understand and model relationships between all channels, drive insight and optimise your activity. This analysis can be based on engaging with and converting more customers for less cost, which is ultimately good news for everyone.”

Offline activityOne of the biggest dangers facing marketers, however, is that they might be fooled by the results apparently being delivered by online media into thinking that their offline spend is a waste of resources. Unfortunately, nobody can yet accurately measure how much online traffic is actually being delivered by offline activity.

The only way that some marketers are going to find out how much of their success online is being driven by their offline communications is when they stop spending offline and see their last clicks dropping off.

As Lennox concludes: “Advertisers may be committing suicide if they remove offline from the equation.” v©

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