When John Hegarty, the chairman and worldwide creative director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, addressed the Internet Advertising Bureau's Engage Conference last year, he declared the digital consumer was a slippery beast: "The big question for the digital creative community is do we really, as yet, understand how people are consuming this new media and are we really creating brand-building work?"
Naturally, Hegarty is determined to engage with the medium. Despite gaps in our understanding, there are compelling studies about building brands online and sophisticated ways of researching digital branding messages.
A growing body of successful digital communications campaigns is perhaps the best "research" out there. At Carat Insight, the managing director, Mark Greenstreet, points to the web's own mega brands - Amazon, Google, MySpace and the like. Then there are other widely recognised brand-building successes, some of the highest profile being Nike's work in the run-up to the 2006 football World Cup and its Run London campaign, where the internet played a crucial role. Greenstreet says: "What Nike has done with the Run London campaigns over the past few years is an excellent example of how the internet has facilitated people to get involved in activities intrinsically linked with the physical and emotional brand benefits."
And there is a rich and expanding seam of research on how people consume digital media. Research companies born with the internet jostle with established research brands and media owners to offer insights. Findings from Ofcom, Jupiter or Forrester, data from Hitwise, Comscore, Nielsen Net ratings ... the list goes on.
But given that the internet is global, getting robust international data comparable across markets, is near impossible. Then there are inconsistencies as research methodologies change to keep up with the pace of change online.
On the quantitative front - measuring and aggregating websites - there are two big players, Comscore and Nielsen//NetRatings, both based on information from panels. But there are information black holes. At Profero, the senior strategic planner, Jesse Basset, explains that smaller sites are not reported. "How do you establish an aggregate of all web-surfing links and niche sites? That's incomparable with any other media."
UK industry standard online research doesn't exist, but there's now the Joint Industry Committee for Internet Measurement Systems - an initiative between the IPA, ISBA, the Association of Online Publishers and the IAB - which is at the beginning of producing the digital equivalent of Barb.
A growing body of research should help to convince wavering clients. The JICIMS manager, Peter Bowman, says: "When the industry does have an agreed planning currency, comparable to other media, then maybe the advertisers behind the brand-building campaigns will be happier using the medium to its full potential."
The IAB is, of course, keen to show how the internet can be used as an effective brand-building medium. At the end of last year, it announced the results of its Brand Engagement research into five "supermini" car campaigns, conducted jointly with Carat Insight, which showed that "online has a greater effect on brand engagement than any other medium".
Another respected piece of research is AOL's Brand New World study. A first tranche of work showed how internet activity was fundamentally changing consumer perceptions about brands. The recently produced second report looked at what marketers should do about this, investigating on- and offsite activity. According to Andrew Bradford, the head of operational planning at AOL UK: "There are quantifiable relationships between onsite and offsite operational levers that marketers can manipulate to influence trust, loyalty and advocacy."
But how can brands relate this medium to those other, better-understood media? A number of research initiatives aim to shed light. Jupiter Research is working on a report into "media multi-tasking", which shows that one- quarter of Europeans are regularly online and offline simultaneously.
The IPA Touchpoints Hub Survey observes when various media come into play. So, it shows that between 9am and 10am, roughly the same number of people are using the internet as watching TV. But it also clocks phenomena such as 86 per cent of Tube users on a Friday in London go online as soon as they arrive at work.
While this wealth of generic information can help in the planning process, successful digital campaigns, such as Profero's Smart online, Safe offline for COI/Home Office also relies on bespoke qualitative research. The COI's own research showed that children put themselves at risk of being targeted by paedophiles when they treated "virtual friends" they meet online in the same way as they treat real friends. Pre- and post-tracking showed the ads succeeded in changing behaviour, with more than one million users clicking on to the ad.
When it comes to measuring advertising effectiveness, there are sophisticated digital techniques. As well as the ability to measure quantatively, using tools from the likes of Double Click, there are qualitative measurements through companies such as Millward Brown's Dynamic Logic.
For clients wanting to understand brand impact, Dynamic Logic's AdIndex tracks brand impact. Its MarketNorms database analyses the results of more than 3,000 online branding campaigns and can help indicate what sort of online advertising might perform better for a certain sector. It can even use a filter to discover what sort of creative execution works best - banner or skyscraper, with or without logo.
To find out what is being said in the blogging world, operations such as Technerati and Bloglines will trawl the net to log the buzz around a topic. Other tools, such as WPP's SEER(TM) (see box) will look more generally at influence generated by web activity.
Nick Adams, a group account director at MindShare Interaction, points out that there is still no satisfactory way of measuring that all-important PR effect online. But that doesn't stop his agency or any other from striving to produce great digital brand-building campaigns. MindShare Interaction created the first MSN men's channel - the MSN Mazda MX-5 Men Only Zone - and succeeded in making the Mazda MX-5 more appealing to men. The agency used Comscore information to identify that MSN offered the highest reach - at 67.1 per cent of the target audience. And Dynamic Logic research demonstrated that the number of ABC1 men who thought the Mazda MX-5 was a masculine car more than doubled as a result.
Hegarty's decision to learn about the digital consumer on the job is the only credible way forward. Taking into acount the picture continues to change. According to Adams: "It just takes people who use the internet on a daily basis, and who have grown up with it, to understand how best to communicate in an interactive and engaging manner online. Combine this with ever more useful surveys and understanding is only going to increase."
16- to 24-year-olds
They might not have the budget to invest in the latest technology, but these six-and-a-half million or so consumers know their way around. This is the messaging generation, with more than one-third saying that they always have Instant Messenger on when online and prefer it to e-mail. Chunks of them belong to MySpace (15 per cent) and Bebo (13 per cent). Almost 40 per cent regularly visit hotmail and more than 25 per cent use msn.co.uk. More than a quarter say they are likely to watch TV on a mobile or iPod and 25 per cent are after a ringtone that will reflect their personality.
These are the digital worriers - half worry about what their children might see on the internet and about carrying expensive gadgets in public, one-third worry about security when shopping on line. But more than half of the UK's 2.7 million stay-at-home mums use broadband at home. Their average online spend over six months last year was £458 and one quarter say that they spend more when they're shopping online. Thirty nine per cent go on eBay regularly, almost a quarter are in and out of the Argos online store and the internet comes in handy for Tesco shopping for many (12.6 per cent).
Most of these 4.2 million go online as often at work as at home. They are the biggest spenders, with an average of £655 over the past six months, with 11 per cent spending more than £1,500. They aren't as likely to be members of online community sites, but a third use the BBC's website regularly and they are big users of multimap.co.uk. They are the most likely to go online to research something if they're spending a bit. Middle management is keenest to tune out, with more than a third switching off their digital phones to escape.
Many of the 16 million people between the ages of 50 and 75 just aren't interested - more than 20 per cent simply don't access the internet and 27 per cent don't go online regularly. Those that do go online aren't necessarily reluctant. Despite being concerned about security and internet shopping (26 per cent), they spent an average of £487 over the past six months online. They are the biggest group of online newspaper readers (8 per cent) and are also keener than others on using digital radio (almost 18 per cent).
Source: Carat Insight Consumer Connection Study (CCS Digital)
HOW TO MEASURE INFLUENCE ONLINE
SEER(TM) is an online research tool, developed by VML - an interactive marketing company based in Missouri, which is part of WPP. Designed to investigate user-generated content on the web, it is one of a number of similar tools that research what people are saying and reading and how consumers are reacting to online messages.
Unlike similar proprietary tools, it goes beyond researching blogs and trawls traditional media sites as well, tracking not just "buzz" around content, but also the linking relationships between sites.
After testing prototypes of the tool in 2004, VML did some preliminary work with Microsoft on Xbox, before the console was launched to gauge the sort of online discussion around the new generation of gaming consoles. Then, in 2006, the US telecoms giant Sprint used SEER(TM), as did Adidas, which used SEER(TM) around its football World Cup campaign in Western Europe.
It can track brand campaigns as well as look at specific efforts against targeted audiences, making it easier for clients to adjust communications.
The tool works by crawling and capturing content. It then uses a three-dimensional visualisation tool to map an "ecosystem", so that the client can see how sites are relating to each other and who is producing content and who is referencing that content on an ongoing basis.
VML has also helped clients such as Ford in the US and the UK and Burger King in the US. It is now looking to developing the tool for Asia.
The agency has developed the tool as part of its interactive marketing service. The information thrown up by SEER(TM) can help determine the best methods for seeding and spreading content within an identified ecosystem.