Is It Possible to Track Ad Spending on the Web?

One of the most tedious and uninspiring tasks that a traditional media planner must perform is a competitive spending analysis.

In my former days, I remember digging through books containing competitive spending research. Agencies typically subscribe to a service that provides media spending across most traditional ad media. The methodology used by these services to track spending was widely known. These companies tracked ads across various media (a Herculean task) and used rate cards provided by publishers to cost out the activity.

This method wasn’t exactly the most accurate. Of course, ad agencies rarely pay rate card, so spending tended to be inflated. Additionally, it is next to impossible for any research company to track every single ad placed, so some placements were missed, and this threw off the spending totals as well.

While not an exact science, this methodology at least gave media planners an idea of what their competitors were spending and the types of media they were using. This could provide valuable insight into strategy, and many agencies subscribed to competitive tracking services to give them an edge.

It logically follows that agency clients would want to see a similar service emerge on the Internet. And in the early days of web advertising, most media planners would shrug cluelessly if someone asked them whether there was a good competitive spending tool to track web advertising. Sure, one might be able to scout the web looking for competitors’ ads, but planners were looking to get an idea of the spending or volume of ad views behind an ad placement and leave the competitive creative analyses to the account managers.

Predictably, several services soon emerged claiming to be able to track competitive media spending and the volume of ad views in a particular buy. The media buyers who paused to think about it for a second all scratched their heads and went “Huh?”

How could any service track every ad view on the web? In lieu of that, how could one even get close? Even if one decided to track only the top few hundred advertising-supported sites, an automated tracking system wouldn’t be able to record every ad impression. Furthermore, finding an ad on a given site is no guarantee that the ad will continue to be there next month, next week, or even in the next minute. How is it technologically possible to track online ads?

The web is an organism that changes very rapidly. Further, sites and online ads appear differently to various web users. Any methodology based on the old “count the ads and cost them out at rate card” approach would be wildly inaccurate. Even the act of observing an online ad could change the way ads are presented to the observer in the future. Mr. Online Competitive Research Company, meet Schroedinger’s cat.

Not surprisingly, the few companies involved in providing competitive services are pretty tightlipped about their research methods. Descriptions of the various services regarding their respective companies’ web sites allude to “intelligent agents” or “monitoring.” Kinda makes you wonder what’s going on behind the scenes…

The truth is, the methodology for tracking competitive spending in traditional media can’t work reliably online. Observing an ad on Yahoo today doesn’t have any bearing on whether that ad will show up there tomorrow. Targeting filters, off-rate-card CPMs, the various cost-per-whatnot pricing models, and the impossibility of tracking every ad-supported site on the web further complicate things. You would probably have better luck trying to find water in the desert with a forked stick than deriving a meaningful measure of competitive spending from a monitoring service.

Monitoring services might be good for doing a competitive creative analysis, but anytime any of my clients ask me to recommend a source for online competitive spending, I tell them that no reliable method yet exists.

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