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Ad Seller 'Guarantees': Innovation or Gimmick?

  |  February 29, 2012   |  Comments

Forbes.com, Daily Meal, and Undertone all offer them. Here's how it's worked out.

A money-back ad guarantee has a nice ring to it. If a digital ad campaign does not accomplish its goals, the advertiser gets all its money back. It works for an online coupon, but how well does it work for a branding campaign?

A small handful of publishers are determined to find out. They use third-party studies to establish whether the guaranteed ads are reaching an agreed-upon goal, such as greater brand favorability or purchase intent. If the goal's not met, the ad placement is free.

In an industry where brands are bombarded by claims about digital ad effectiveness, a money-back guarantee is a marketing tool - some say "gimmick" - to help clients leap beyond direct response ads and spend more on online branding. At least that's the theory.

Among the companies offering brand-centric marketers just such a guarantee are Forbes.com, Daily Meal and Undertone. Here's how it's working out for them.

Undertone is the newest entrant, peddling guaranteed brand campaigns on a network of 350 content sites. Starting in early Feb. 2012 clients who commit at least $200,000 in advertising can get a money-back deal on the first $50,000 of their ad spend. Independent analytics firm Vizu is tapped to provide metrics on brand lift, including awareness, attitudes, favorability, intent, and performance.

The client zeroes in on its branding goal and approves survey questions to establish that goal. Vizu measures brand lift in real-time, comparing audiences who have seen the ads with those who have not. Instant data "gives us the chance to adjust the campaign while it is still running, to make sure it meets its goals," says Jared Skolnick, Undertone VP of product marketing.

"That's how we can be confident enough to guarantee it. The guarantee is a [shorthand] way to show our accountability," he says. Packaged goods, entertainment and finance clients are most interested in the concept of guaranteed campaigns, says Skolnick, but no deals had been finalized by Feb. 27.

Daily Meal, a one-year-old foodie site, launched a similar program in Oct. 2011. To qualify for the guarantee, a client must commit $250,000. Like Undertone, Daily Meal picks up the estimated $2,500 tab for each Vizu survey. Daily Meal will also work with other qualified third-party researchers. "Marketers like the idea that we are putting our money where our mouth is – into brand metrics and not click metrics," says Jim Spanfeller, CEO and founder. "Sophisticated brands and buyers that already are doing lots of research are most interested in the program," he says. Daily Meal, which claims 2 million monthly unique visitors, expects guaranteed ads to start running in Spring 2012.

In a complex environment, such a straightforward, ROI-friendly solution can be a welcome innovation - even if it's just a modern twist on an old gimmick. "For our messy industry, a guarantee promises a simple way to transact business," says Spanfeller, formerly CEO of Forbes.com.

Forbes.com is the pioneer of guaranteed brand ads, launching them during Spanfeller's reign back in 2003. Over the years about 200 clients have signed up for the guaranteed ad programs, sources say. The company offers the program to clients who advertise $150,000 or more over two months. Results are measured by Dynamic Logic. The type of advertisers using the guarantee is consistent: technology, financial services, auto and B2B services, says Mark Howard, Forbes Media SVP of digital ad strategy. Most already have high awareness levels, so new guaranteed campaigns are generally designed for message association. Also, tech and auto clients seek spikes in favorability in their product launches, Howard says.

Only one advertiser got its money back, during the depths of the recession. "But the insights from that [refunded] campaign helped the company shape its messaging moving forward and it is still a partner of ours," he says.

But there is no guarantee that brand guarantees will work to attract fatter ad budgets. All three content providers admit that the growing interest in money-back programs has not translated into a flood of signed deals. The truth is "demand from brands isn't as high as you would expect given the pressure on marketers these days to find value in their digital media plans," says Howard.


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Joan Voight is a Contributing Editor to ClickZ. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, she has covered online and offline media, marketing and advertising since the mid-1990s for several business publications. She spent nine years at Adweek magazine, where she was San Francisco bureau chief, national senior writer and contributing reporter.

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