Playing the Tracking Game

Whoever decided to invent units of measure thousands of years ago started a big mess for us in online today. Back in those days, people were measuring for the essential things in life: food, livestock, and anything else that kept you alive.

Online, we have less critical reasons to measure things. It has very little to do with sustaining life, unless you live for your job in interactive. In which case, you may want pay close attention to this column and plan to seek some professional help of another kind.

In the Internet Stone Age of GIF banners and text links, click tracking was as simple as it gets, and measuring performance was so easy, even a creative type like yours truly could do it.

With the introduction of video and rich media advertising, measurement gets all calculus-like to people like me. OK, maybe not everyone has a problem with calculus, but you get the idea. Regardless of the difficulty or lack thereof, I’d have scores of conversations with clients, media people, and anyone who would dare to listen why tracking was a good thing.

Then I’d have the same argument with the same people about why it wasn’t.

Somewhere in this bipolar disposition lie some awkward possibilities. Let’s take the pro-measurement argument first.

Tracking Is a Good Thing

It’s not hard to see why measurement is good in any marketing activity. In rich media, we have hundreds, if not thousands, of things that can be measured: rollovers; panel openings and closings; audio activation and deactivation; video play, stop, rewind, and forward; video close, replay, and download; and so on.

These are amazing things to track, and given the idea of multiple plays or experiences inside one or more user sessions, the mass of data you can collect is mind-boggling. Not to mention measuring time spent with any element of content in the online work.

What all that can tell you is truly amazing, too, especially in the instance of comparative units and publishers as well as user modes of experience. All said, there are a lot of parameters and a sizeable amount of insights that can be derived from all that data. And then some.

Tracking Is a Bad Thing

But there are some obvious problems to measurement.

First, a huge amount of tracking data isn’t really recognized in a meaningful way, as with the other established forms of measurement.

Second is polymorphic context. Users’ variables and their mental and emotional states can affect a reaction to any rich experience. So can the content surrounding the ad.

Before you start to think this sounds like behavioral targeting, realize it’s the dark side of behavioral targeting.

Finally, the interactions one can have inside a rich online ad can number in the hundreds, sometimes as much as a whole Web site. In users’ mind, most of the interaction time allotted for an ad is a mere fraction of what they’re prepared to endure on a full-sized site.

How can one rationalize this major differential in a measurement experience? It’s not like comparing apples to oranges, it’s like comparing apples to a steel ingot.

To Measure or Not to Measure

We don’t have to cherry-pick from these points to judge measurement, but another conclusion may save us from a bipolar disorder. It’s hard for any marketing professional to rationalize value. With an extensive amount of experience in brand and direct response measurement, you don’t disagree that it’s better to leave well enough alone.

We all know that won’t happen. At some point, despite all the half measures and the placating done by the Nielsens and comScores of the world, online will prove to be richer in data and measurement than all other forms of marketing.

As marketers, we must keep an eye on the essential points of interaction and build from there, systematically adding more measurement levels as the data starts painting a progressive picture of user interaction. Then, after all these years, we can start learning calculus.

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