Common Sense Branding Research

In my last article, The Cult of Click-Through, I explained why we couldn’t rely on click-through rates to determine whether our advertising is effective. So how do you measure branding success?

Truth is, there are a number of tools on the market designed to test effectiveness. But making sure you use the right one takes a solid understanding of research principles, knowledge of Internet technology, and a healthy dose of common sense.

Copy testing, which is the most common tool for testing advertising effectiveness, was once considered groundbreaking research. In offline copy testing, researchers expose consumers to advertising in malls or focus groups and then immediately ask them about the advertised brand. Such testing is supposed to test how compelling the advertising is.

The problem is that people know they’re being set up and react accordingly. Imagine this: “Look at this ad for Joe’s Hot Dogs!! Now, what hot dog brands come to mind?” Besides, measuring the immediate effect of advertising doesn’t take into account the cumulative effect of advertising over time.

This flawed testing model has migrated over to the online environment. Instead of being recruited in front of Sears, respondents are recruited off of banners or pop-up windows. But the methodology is the same: Getting an immediate reaction in the context of an artificial environment.

Fortunately, the Internet has allowed us to explore a different approach. Two years ago, the Internet Advertising Bureau led the way with a study to measure the effectiveness of Internet advertising. When people on certain web sites requested a page on the site, they were asked to take a survey.

One half of the surveyed respondent pool was served the page they initially requested, along with a brand advertisement (test). The other half got the same page with a “dummy” ad (control). A few days later, both groups were queried by email about their attitudes concerning the brand advertised, and results between the control and test group were compared.

This study was a good step in the right direction. By using the power of the Internet to segment people and serve them a customized message, the study could employ the classic experimental (control/test) design.

It was blind; it tested the impact of ads without revealing to respondents what was being tested. The methodology wasn’t prohibitively expensive (as a segmented, control/test method would be offline). And best of all, it showed that Internet advertising was effective.

But the IAB study wasn’t perfect. The biggest problem was that respondents were exposed to only one ad. Advertisers have known for a long time that multiple exposures are optimal. Most importantly, the study couldn’t compare results based on varying levels of exposure.

Online research has come a long way since then. Now, we can keep track of just what ads people are exposed to and when, and compare this information with the answers they give us in surveys. We can tell which ads are most effective in promoting certain attitudes among specific groups of people. We can measure and calibrate the cumulative effect of advertising. And we can do it in real time, allowing us to optimize our campaigns based on exactly which elements of our advertising is best meeting our client’s specific objectives.

In order to craft this type of research, you need to understand the ins and outs of cookies, IP addresses, and database management. But what is even more crucial is to know how to customize the research around the needs of your client. Branding research needs to answer the questions most relevant to your client, and every client has different needs. That’s why it’s not about choosing the right tools, but being able to use those tools in order to craft the right research plan.

We can use branding research not only to inform and improve our campaigns, but also to make online advertising more accountable. Clients like that. Come to think of it, it’s only common sense.

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