Digital Essays: Let's measure up

We can't ignore it any longer. As budgets for online activities grow, clients are going to start demanding proper measurement of their campaigns.

As all agencies are happily aware, digital adspend has rocketed in 2006 and its steady rise looks set to continue in 2007. According to the latest Bellwether Report, online now accounts for around £2 billion of marketing spend each year and advertisers boosted online more than any other marketing budgets in the first quarter of the year. So, while the future is still looking rosy for digital marketers, I'd better use this opportunity to draw attention to the proverbial elephant in the room that we are all trying our best to ignore. Namely, when are we going to start offering the measurement clients need in order to justify their increased investment?

So far, digital campaigns have managed to avoid the rigorous pre-testing, optimisation and measurement that traditional advertising is subjected to, under the excuse of it being a "new and unformed" media. But that just won't cut it for much longer. Sooner or later, clients are going to start asking exactly what return they are seeing for their increased investment and when they do, we must have an industry standard in place that we can show them. In other words, if we don't start paying attention to the elephant soon, it's going to go on the rampage.

One-click ponies

These days, I'm regularly given the challenge of analysing a client's ad campaign in order to draw insight that will inform our future work. But that's easier said than done when you only have click rates to work with. It's an astoundingly one-dimensional approach, considering we are working in the most interactive and dynamic arena of marketing. I want to be able to see depth of brand engagement, and the levels of conversion to desired action or attitudes. After all, it's not that hard to drive pure volume, but delivering qualified interactions is a different story. And high-quality engagement will become our best ammunition for justifying increased spend.

But even with tools such as Spotlight tags, the link between online ads and site-engagement reporting is poor. We can measure a straightforward conversion to action, but it's impossible to connect more complicated actions, or "softer" perceptions and attitudes. Conversely, I've always found online brand awareness research to be incredibly insightful, but it's difficult to link the shift in brand perceptions to actual user behaviour such as response, repeat visits, content engagement or conversion to sale.

Across our clients, we are currently using at least eight different website-analysis tools. This hardly helps in our quest for standardised reporting and reliable benchmarks. Further, none is particularly good at segmenting and cross-tabulating user groups to uncover insights. Typically, they report data in aggregate. I want to be able to compare paths and profiles between high-frequent visitors and those who only visit once a month.

Testing times

Does this sound familiar: "Why pre-test? Digital is cheap and flexible. Let's just put the ad up and see if someone clicks. If not, we'll rotate it out." Fine. I can understand the reluctance to spend £15,000 on a focus group if the entire campaign is only costing £40,000. However, we are starting to see hundreds of thousands of pounds being spent on a single online campaign. Surely clients (and agencies) need more reassurance that their investment will pay off.

Unfortunately, the pre-testing methodologies for online aren't quite there yet. I'd like to see more panel-based approaches, which would be a rapid and cost-effective way to conduct iterative creative testing, and online testing methodologies that more closely mirror the environment the creative will appear in. We must also adjust pre-testing tools to account for the importance of the media placement and targeting on the consumer's response.

What's hot, what's not

Website stats that can only be cut by age and gender alone are woefully inadequate, and surveys that provide information every six months are laughable if you want to keep up with the online world. We need to know more about what our audiences are doing online and see the trends as they're emerging. I want to be able to see what the top searches are this week by category or topic. Nielsen's BlogPulse is a great tool to see what people are talking about, but it's very US-centric. Digg is a cool resource to see what people are into, but you can't draw any conclusions by audience groups.

Procter & Gamble recently launched a portal for women with the sole aim of gathering market research and audience insights. Online ethnographic research like this is an emerging area that could bring amazing new insights into online users' actual behaviour, rather than that that is self-reported in surveys.

Excuses, excuses ...

So far, it's been too easy to let measurement slip off our list of priorities. But it's definitely time for us to face up to it and stop hoping it will go away. We can begin by challenging media agencies to share their data. For example, in the US, creative digital agencies and media agencies work far more closely together, and share data before, during and after campaigns to ensure that every facet is optimised - weekly. Why aren't we doing the same here?

At the same time, creative agencies must also make more time for measurement, which is difficult when dealing with a fast-paced and fluid medium. At the moment, it feels like we're all too busy, or even that we're a little afraid that the results will not bear out and the faith our clients have put in the medium will disappear.

Naturally, the quickest way to get any agency to change its ways is for clients to demand it. It's a brutal fact that if the client isn't calling for it, it isn't going to happen.

Put simply, the following needs to happen before the elephant goes rogue. Where proper research and analysis methodologies don't exist or work, we need to invent new ones. We must insist researchers launch the services in the UK that are available in the US or other markets. We need to get some standardisation in reporting and analysis, and reliable industry benchmarks. And finally, we need media and creative agencies to play nice and share campaign and site data quickly and continuously.

We can be proud of the exponential growth of digital marketing, but it's still relatively small. Clients are willing to make a greater and longer-term commitment to digital, but only if we can give them the assurance and proof that their investment is a wise one.

- Kristin Berg is the planning director at Euro RSCG 4D Digital.