Yahoo! for Researchers

Imagine you’re an Internet publisher trying to weather — even thrive — in these troubled times for the online advertising business. Who do you need to suck up to? Conventional wisdom says to woo media buyers and their clients in the hope of winning them over to your way of thinking. But Yahoo took a different approach this week. A very canny approach.

Rather than court media buyers — though the company has had its share of events targeted at these folks — Yahoo instead hosted a research conference in New York, inviting industry opinion leaders, including a passel of agency research executives.

Why researchers? The spreadsheet-loving, bean-counting crew? It wasn’t obvious at first, but eventually it became clear. In an environment in which numbers rule — in which quantifiable proof of effectiveness and return on investment are everything — researchers are the all-knowing, all-seeing oracles (and media buyers base their dollar allocations on researchers’ prophesies).

Yahoo has had its share of difficulties with agencies in the past. During the go-go years, the company was often criticized for passing over agencies altogether and going straight to clients. (Agencies didn’t “get it,” after all.) In today’s climate, the chastened media player is working hard to court agency players — working so hard that an Ad Age survey recently dubbed Yahoo the top Internet publishing company when it came to satisfying agencies. In the “improvement” category, Yahoo scored 7.9 points out of a possible 10 (compared this to AOL’s 5.9 and MSN’s 3.0).

One sign of Yahoo’s improvement is a recently demonstrated awareness of the importance of research and researchers. As an industry, we’re getting better at understanding what works and what doesn’t. Research plays a critical role in this process (combined with experience). Now that we’ve got a few years under our collective belt — years during which research folks have dutifully been making measurements — it’s not all guts and guesswork anymore.

Discussion at the conference made clear we’ve still got a long way to go. We’ve determined the Internet should only be one part of the media mix. How big should that part be? (One thing everyone’s sure of is that the Internet should get more than the 2 percent or so of ad spending it’s said to attract now.) This requires more research.

The lack of industrywide standards for things such as clicks, impressions, and site traffic is unquestionably hindering growth, not to mention making people’s jobs much more difficult and time consuming.

Next Tuesday, the Interactive Advertising Bureau is expected to announce its proposed standards for these metrics. I’m eager to see how quickly the industry adopts them. I’m eager to see if it adopts them.

Once we finally agree on the definition of terms, some work remains to be done. Anyone who saw the rise and fall of the click as a preferred measure of success has seen metrics come and metrics go. Although Yahoo’s sales pitch was generally muted, the company clearly knows this issue is critical. Late in the day, Yahoo’s director of global market research, Anke Audenaert, gave a talk called “The Metrics That Will Count: How Advertisers and Agencies Will Evaluate the Internet in the Future.” Yahoo would want to speak up on this matter. Influence what counts, and you’ll stack the deck in your favor.

Not surprisingly, Audenaert talked about the importance of such things as global reach, stickiness, loyalty, brand strength, and breadth of network usage — all areas in which Yahoo performs well.

I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with trying to influence the development of metrics. On the contrary, Yahoo is smart to get involved in the discussion — indeed to host a forum dedicated to the issues. I think it’s important for every stakeholder in this industry to be involved.

Determining what will be measured, how, and which measurements take precedence is fundamental. This establishes the rules by which the game will be played. Those who work to establish the guidelines are the ones most likely to win in the end.

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