Recently I’ve had several insightful conversations with the publisher of a legal practice consulting journal about web metrics, specifically about his confusion and frustration over what advertisers want and where he should focus his resources to have the best chances of landing blue chip advertisers in the future. He relies heavily on advertising revenue and wants to put together ad packages that appeal to advertisers and benefit his readers by providing relevant, useful, interactive messaging.
It’s no secret that we are at a critical juncture in the way we measure online advertising results using standard web metrics. Visits, monthly unique visitors, page views, impressions and click through rate (CTR) used to be the definition of accountable advertising. Publishers could easily mine server logs for this data and third party ad servers developed sophisticated tracking software to study, in minute detail, every interaction with a standard or rich media display ad. Publishers and advertisers found a mutually agreeable way to negotiate ad rates that was largely based on the traditional CPM model.
It was fun while it lasted.
As with everything else on the internet, the rapid evolution of online marketing soon required different metrics to satisfy advertisers’ thirst for data and fulfill the promise of complete visibility into all online marketing efforts. Nowadays the conversation revolves around “softer” metrics such as engagement, branding and attribution.
Engagement is a measure of how involved your audience is with the content. It can be expressed in time, actions taken, pass-along, or any other quantifiable measure of interaction. There is no universally accepted definition, since it differs based on an advertiser’s objectives and the type of content in question.
An ad’s impact on branding can include metrics for awareness, recall, intent, source of information, level of knowledge, etc. This is much more difficult to track as it usually involves intangible data points that are only known to the end user. There are several companies making great strides in measuring this information but it comes at great expense and the resources required to develop the surveys and extract the salient points are not cheap.
Attribution is yet another tough nut to crack. Some advertisers are just waking up to the idea that maybe their PPC ad wasn’t the sole cause for a conversion, even though it was the last touch point before a customer completed the desired action. The problem lies in tracking the user’s previous interactions with your brand and marketing messages, whether it is online, offline or a combination. Again, this information is not readily available in a single site’s server logs and most consumers won’t take annoying surveys on every site they visit…which isn’t bad because we all know that what John Q. Customer thinks he did and what he actually did are usually dramatically different.
I don’t claim to have the answers but when I look into my crystal ball, I don’t see any resolution to the metrics question for some time. There are too many competing objectives, technical challenges, privacy concerns and vested interests in measuring things certain ways. Advertisers would happily pay for engagement and branding while trying to understand how to attribute the proper credit to each medium. Unfortunately, publishers are largely unable to track the new metrics things and are forced to sell their inventory for increasingly sparse CPMs. Throw in the new technologies and increasing fragmentation and you’ve got a giant mess that is beyond any of us to resolve without a lot of bloodshed.
Taking the long-term view, publishers can’t go wrong with increased impression levels. Building communities or offering unique interactive content will help satisfy the engagement piece, so publishers are wise to cover all the angles and wait until a winner emerges. My hunch is that neither will become the “holy grail” of web metrics, since different advertisers have different objectives and expectations. I expect that they will be able to sell the same ad inventory to different advertisers by packaging it differently based on the need.