Get Direct With Digital Brand Advertising!

There is much hubbub at conferences, as well as rich information circulating about behavioural targeting, data buying, attribution modeling, ad exchanges, and other digital direct-response marketing game changers. We continuously and aggressively test new technologies and techniques, which generate immediately visible results. As an industry, we get better at direct-response advertising every day.

In contrast, news about digital brand-building programmes consists of short, sensational blurbs, focusing on execution versus. performance. Even in award show submissions, brand-building cases do not sufficiently prove an increase in awareness or change in perception; instead, citing reach data or anecdotal buzz as a weak indication of progress made. Without accurate, meaningful metrics, we cannot pinpoint what works and what does not, so programmes do not evolve and improve.

As brand campaigns are developed, there is far too much emphasis placed on audience reach, used as a proxy for impact, while there is too little discussion about actual impact. As a result, many digital media plans resemble television plans (portal placements delivering tonnage) or print plans (contextual targeting), with some uniquely digital flashiness (a ‘crazy’ ad). Even the vernacular is scarily old-school: ‘spot plans’, ‘air date’, et al. Far more sophisticated and effective targeting techniques exist via digital platforms, but until metrics support the use of them, watered-down plans that adhere to old best practices will prevail.

This poses a significant danger to marketers. Even as direct-response efforts appear to continue to improve, giving the false impression that business is great, the pool from which interested prospects are drawn may be diminishing. The continued success of the direct-response efforts, and business overall, relies on brand-building efforts to replenish that pool.

The use of the phrase ‘performance marketing to refer solely to direct-response advertising irks me. It downplays the role of brand-building efforts in delivering business results. The exclusion may be symptomatic of the problem that few marketers properly measure campaigns’ impact on awareness and perceptions of brands. However, it also perpetuates the problem by alleviating the pressure to deliver results.

As direct-response planners feel immense pressure to perform, brand planners are spoiled in comparison, benefiting from general acceptance that brand initiatives are hard to measure and probably perform satisfactorily, as long as the approach is logical. Brand advertising must be held to a greater standard of accountability. Not only should brand advertising be viewed under the umbrella of ‘performance marketing’, but should be planned, measured, and optimised with the same rigor as direct-response advertising.

The solution starts with expanding our view of ‘performance marketing’ to encompass all marketing and signify increased accountability. In the same way that a direct-response planner envisions and architects communications scenarios that will achieve a specific cost-per-action, cost-per-sale or return-on-investment, brand advertising planners should carefully develop plans to achieve efficient increases in awareness and changes in perception.

To get there, planners first need to have a thorough understanding of what is required to convert a potential buyer from unaware to aware, from reluctant to interested, from disbelieving to believing. Old best practices may no longer apply, as consumers’ preferences about how they would like to engage with brands and how they make decisions are changing. Relevant, actionable insights can only come from significant and continued experience measuring the impact of variables (environment, ad format, message, frequency, et al.) and combinations of them, on brand objectives.

Measurement solutions for branding initiatives have long existed and are becoming easier to deploy. Data gathering and analysis periods have been reduced, so that findings are actionable within the campaign period. Publishers are becoming more familiar with implementation requirements. The flat fee associated with measuring impact on brand metrics is often perceived as high, but is almost always lower than direct-response measurement solutions, which are often built in as a percent of ad spend and are seldom questioned. Survey development is labour-intensive and requires input from multiple parties, but all of these seem like minor issues when you consider the alternative; the cost of not knowing what works and what does not work.

By applying proper measurement strategies, tracking contributions back to unique combinations of variables, and calculating efficiency, planners will be able to project the results of various marketing opportunities. They can optimise within a current plan, scale the plan to include similar opportunities, and identify new opportunities to test. Sound familiar? By adopting a process that is similar to direct-response, branding effectiveness will increase; filling the pool that feeds the direct-response programmes on which businesses (seem to) thrive.

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