NEW MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON INTERACTIVE ADVERTISING - Interactive TV ready to prove the true effect of ads on sales

Can Zip's new data-capture system change interactive TV forever?

On the face of it, this seems like the ultimate advertiser fantasy - a system that claims to measure with great accuracy the direct effect of TV advertising on sales. Brand Sales Tracker promises to be powerful stuff because as well as recording immediate, short-term cause and effect, it claims to be able to chart longer-term changes in customer behaviour, such as the length of time a campaign can go on affecting customer loyalty.

And it can also be used to pinpoint which competitor brands lose market share as a direct result of a successful campaign.

If this were available in the general airtime market, its impact would be seismic. It's not, unfortunately (not yet anyway), but its introduction in interactive TV could still be pretty significant. Actually, it could be the making of the medium.

Indeed, the fact that this research can be undertaken at all highlights one of the prime selling points of interactive TV - that electronic response is not only measurable but it indicates a deeper involvement with the message than with your conventional inert TV spot.

Brand Sales Tracker is an initiative developed by the interactive TV consultancy Zip Television in association with dunnhumby - which gives a clue as to how the back half of the system works because dunnhumby manages Tesco's Clubcard.

If you click on an interactive ad and go through to a microsite, the broadcaster (or platform owner) records even this simple level of activity and if you go further, requesting free samples, say, there's an even richer data capture. So if in addition you're a Tesco Clubcard holder, they now know not just which ads you've responded to but what you've bought at the supermarket. Marry the two data sets and you can start forming some conclusions about how one affects the other. Which is something of a breakthrough, isn't it?

Donna Barradale, the managing director of Zip Television, obviously thinks so. She says: "We hear time and again from advertisers that they'd like more proof and evidence about how interactive TV works. This will give them hard facts and enable them to compare interactive TV with other media."

Zip has presented the system to several advertisers and has had a positive response from a number of them, such as Boots, Procter & Gamble and Rimmel, though as yet no-one has signed on the dotted line. But it's easy to see why this should be of interest to the likes of Rimmel. Last year, Rimmel made a couple of successful forays into the interactive advertising market, first for Double Act Foundation and then for Exaggerate Hydra Colour Lipstick.

The company is now keen to learn all it can about interactive and use interactive TV techniques to build its database.

Zip has also been touting the system to satellite and cable. Mark Connolly, the manager of interactivity at the Flextech sales house, ids, likes what he sees. He states: "We think this is a fantastic measurement tool and will be of interest to a number of advertisers. For interactive broadcast advertising this is almost the Holy Grail if it can show how much an interactive ad contributes to uplift in sales. But it is somewhat restricted. It is only appropriate for FMCG products, it's no good for the motor, finance or holiday sectors."

Especially in the first and second quarters of the year, those three categories tend to be the mainstays of the interactive TV market so it may take a while for the system to get off the ground. But Connolly has no doubts that it will have an important part to play in the evolution of the medium.

"The fact that this is being headed by an independent company is important. Because Zip is independent, it will be able to bring together the various bits of the industry. Companies that were already looking to do interactive advertising will be looking to bolt it on and it can offer other companies a great way to test the water. It could be a great step forward in demonstrating the effectiveness of the medium. But I think we should also remember that interactive TV is not just about response rates, it's about brand building too," he adds.

Some agencies tend to be nervous about anything that attempts to forge a simple link between campaign activity and sales. Advertising, they will no doubt say, is about permeating into the subconsciousness of the target market, not about Pavlovian stimulus response.

Toby Hack, the head of interactive TV at OMD UK, says that it may in the first instance be of interest to advertisers looking to evolve DRTV techniques in interactive TV. He comments: "One of interactive TV's core selling points is that it's easier to press the red button than to pick up the telephone - and some of the response rates to ads have been fantastic, certainly far higher than conventional DRTV. What some advertisers worry about more is the quality of the response. If you can find out what a response can offer back to you as an advertiser, then that has to be welcome."

Hack agrees that the research would be of even greater interest if it offered an even bigger shop window. Tesco may be the biggest shop window but it is hardly the whole UK retail market. He also cautions that it won't be relevant to all clients.

"Interactive advertising is not always about a direct sale, it's also about brand advertising and about giving viewers a different experience.

Different advertisers have been tending to use interactive TV for lots of different things, specific initiatives that you can't really generalise from. And even if you show results for, say, Fairy Liquid does that mean it will work for your brand? So it is just the beginning in terms of improving confidence in the medium. It's a first step but you can't deny that it's a pretty impressive first step."