Who benefits from the web analytics disinformation game?
The premise of online advertising is not just that people see ads like they do in print, but that the effectiveness of the ad is supposed to be directly measurable. Based on measurement using web analytics, the enterprise can model customer behavior and plan future campaigns - at least that is how it's been sold to us all. But what happens when the measurement process is so truncated as to become almost a parody of measurement? Who wins the race when we just stop at the beginning like a balky thoroughbred refusing to get out of the gate?
How many more races do you suppose that thoroughbred will be permitted to enter? In the case of online advertising, and where the thoroughbred's paddock team represents the world of "Big Agency" advertising, the answer seems to be: however many more the horse trainers feel like entering (and the enterprise/owner gets stuck with the bill).
Controlling the Message
It's an open secret that what used to be exclusively called "Madison Avenue" controls the messaging for enormous enterprises across the globe. And with sophisticated ad networks in league, they can also have a stake in the messaging of tiny companies as well.
But it's not just the messaging "out" to the public they control. They also control the messaging "in" to their client; about the direction of their advertisement; about its success. And they define success as well. Perhaps it's a bulwark against the uncommonly common arrows flying through the air in advertising, an industry as capricious and pernicious as any known in the West. In that kind of environment, who would not want to influence the thinking of their customer to the point where the customer puts not just their dollars but a large part of their commercial hopes in your hands?
If you were to succeed at this, then it would behoove the big agency to provide comprehensive facts about the success or failure of advertising spend. And yet it can be found that the thinking of the big agency is driven by one small part of the all-important conversion metric. First, let's take a look at the complete process.
The Digital Advertising Engagement Funnel
That small part of the funnel focused on by the typical big agency? The first one, where you send out lots of ads and talk about how big the digital footprint is. The one where your ad network tells you that plenty of users clicked on that ad. The one where many companies completely lose track of that user and have no idea whether that ad did anything but bring useless traffic and contributed nothing but additional load on the broadband infrastructure. At least one advertiser admitted rather blithely that they could not provide conversion metrics because they "couldn't get the developers to place the tags." I didn't sleuth the developers but I am willing to place a bet they wouldn't have said they couldn't make their car payments because they "couldn't get the customer to send the check."
Conversion metrics are nothing new in digital advertising, and many of the best practitioners in the space have long been focused on it - Jim Sterne, Bryan Eisenberg, to name an illustrious pair. But getting those big agency minds focused on following through on their stentorian efforts to reach millions has by and large been middling at best. Advertisers and consumers both suffer from the result. Advertisers, because their fears are easily manipulated; consumers, because they are denied an improved and advantageous relationship with the products they want to buy.
With the conversion process well known, the technology mature, and no small number of serious web analytics practitioners in the field, the only explanation for the failure to move beyond "reach" metrics comes down to motive. Who has the means and the motive for keeping enterprises too focused on reach?
Big agencies are who. We know about the means. The motive gets harder to pin down, and it wouldn't be fair to claim that all agencies possess a portion of the guilt. But if you were the creator of the creative, and the distributor of the distribution, and the measurer of the measurement, and you wanted to know the answer to every question before you asked it, would you not then focus on the measure most measurable and the one that provided the biggest, most unambiguous number? That measure is reach.
Any effort to consciously ignore or diminish attention upon the rest of the process would seem to require a campaign of disinformation. These days it's hard to imagine anyone in digital advertising utterly unaware of conversion metrics. And hard to imagine that anyone can rationally suggest conversion metrics don't matter. But it is easy to imagine how the disinformation is fomented.
Who Has to Win, and Why
Actionable analytics requires a process by which metrics drive intelligence, and intelligence drives changes. Rand Schulman has said "Creative without conversion equals zero." And when your creative and ad-buying reputation is subject to measurement - by nature unpredictable - you may end up running scared from any notion of metrics-driven change. For a big agency, the stakes are quite high. That major campaign that sprawled across the pages, obscuring for one second the headlines of some of the biggest online venues, the one that cost a bundle and took a really long time to develop? Did that campaign tank? Did all that money go to waste?
The dollars at stake make actionable analytics almost an automatic non-starter for those pressured with driving success with their marketing creative. For that pressure - based on not knowing how to control the result in any way - can produce what I will call "advertising flop-sweat" on the necks of those who sell advertising ideas to big companies.
So much easier than focusing on the numbers you can control. Like "how many ad impressions did we buy?" And the fairly irrelevant but predictable "how many click-throughs did we get?" The answers to these questions are not only easy to come by, they are either entirely under command or easy to justify.
Let's just say that big agencies continue to talk about reach. They do so because that's what they've been doing for as long as big agencies have existed: reaching prospects. And it remains a true statement that advertising is the lifeblood of sales. However, one wonders, given what we know about the measurability of online user behavior, if an industry can be founded today by hawking just the simplest and most obvious part of the process as if it were the only part of the process.
Which is why there is much riding on whether the world of big agencies can continue to win the disinformation game against actionable analytics. And until we have evidence that enterprises are fully embracing a full-cycle relationship with users, we will continue to suggest the game is being won with disinformation.
Andrew V. Edwards is a digital marketing executive with 20 years of experience serving large organizations, and has been an operating executive and digital marketing consultant since the 1980s.
In 2004 Edwards co-founded the Digital Analytics Association and is currently a director emeritus. He has designed analytics training curricula for business teams and has led seminars on digital marketing subjects.
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