A Higher Standard: Interactive Advertising Metrics

The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) held a pretty significant summit last month around online audience measurement. I say “significant” because it actually seems as if something may have gotten done. At least, there are commitments to getting something done.

Here’s a quick recap of the story, for those too busy watching online photo companies being bought to focus on something as unsexy as “length of visit”:

In April, the IAB sent a letter to Nielsen//NetRatings and comScore saying enough discrepancies were enough. Marketers have had to sort through multiple, competing reports on audience numbers for too long, and it’s time to push for a new level of transparency. The IAB was backed by the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF); American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA); the Association of National Advertisers (ANA); the Magazine Publishers of America (MAP); the Media Rating Council (MRC); the Online Publishers Association (OPA); and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

(Just kidding on that last one, in case you were wondering.)

This combined muscle seemed to have pushed everyone forward, at least a step. Nielsen and comScore have agreed to submit their measurement methodology to a third party for an audit. The IAB has agreed to help educate the marketplace on the validity of both server-based and panel-based measurement (and to put out a press release anytime anyone involved in this project does anything at all, it seems). The promise is all this work will net a great degree of transparency and consistency in the numbers advertisers will use to plan and (more important) buy media across the Internet.

But wait a minute. How come the interactive medium is subject to this increased level of scrutiny, anyway? TV ratings are pretty well standardized, but prices remain heavily influenced by sweeps week lunacy. We’ve had any number of questions around credibility in magazine and newspaper readership figures. Media buyers have always had to suffer through a sea of questionable numbers when making determinations about how to spend the client’s money.

Why should online be held to a particularly high standard?

Part of it is our own fault. In the beginning of online media, we endowed ourselves with the Curse of Knowability. We promised we’d finally be able to tell how many people saw an ad and how many people responded to it. It felt like a major breakthrough, but it was really just another chapter in the same old fiction. It turns out the number of times an ad is served has little to do with its overall efficacy, and the click as a measurement became problematic (especially when clicks didn’t occur).

The ability to measure, of course, was viewed as a positive, valuable byproduct of the technology inherent in our medium. But today’s Web technology: AJAX, Flash, and XML, don’t lend themselves well to measuring people. A site visit is no longer a clearly demarcated experience with a beginning and an end. At least, not by looking at server logs it isn’t.

To make matters worse, we’re seeing Web experiences crack outside the bounds of the browser window. Experiences can live like applications or even widgets, which are like an application’s kid brother. Say you want to buy media space on an application that lives on a desktop for a long time but isn’t really visible. How exactly do you define this?

Ultimately, this is the big challenge. It makes sense for the IAB to standardize the way companies report on traffic. And it makes sense it wants to clarify that there are two different methodologies that seek the same goal.

But what about what they’re actually measuring? Is the notion of a visit still valid? At least, is it still valid across the many different types of ways an ad may be delivered online?

We must make Web measurement better, more transparent, and more consistent. But we also must push ourselves very hard to make sure we’re consistently challenging the definitions we run our businesses on. Technology is moving faster than analysts. We must stay caught up.

Amazingly, the best way for us to stay caught up with the technology is to forget about it — at least for a little while. As a marketer, I’m not really interested in having people visit my Web site. I’m interested in increasing their likelihood of buying my product. The site visit is an instrument toward that end.

As we all become more focused on the specific numbers the servers kick out (or the panels report), I hope we always ask one simple question: what does this mean? Better yet, we should approach the technology and the methodology with one key question:

How was value created for my business by interactive technology?

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