Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Doing more for less: Unmasking display ad effectiveness research

A couple of weeks ago, comScore and Starcom released a study showing that display advertising online continues to find fewer and fewer people willing to take the click (here). To boil it down to the essence, a mere 8% of internet users account for 85% of all display ad clicks. So much for the legendary 80-20 rule.

This means that display ad click-thru rates for the other 92% of internet users are actually much lower than the oft-quoted figure of 0.05%. So low, in fact, as to be essentially the same as, well, zero.

Some, perhaps with a vested interest in impression-based online media, react to the comScore report as one might expect. With vague assertions about online branding + awareness. Others quote 'research' about the additive effect of display advertising on the effectiveness of performance-based formats like search (example).

But when one actually reads the research (when it can be found, like this one from Microsoft's Atlas Institute) one gets the distinct impression (so to speak) that these studies are often just marketing POV's dressed up in a mad-scientist Halloween costume: nice white lab coat, institute clipboard...but no research methods. No explanation of controls. And no causal explanation of why 27% of the results were in opposition to the fundamental conclusion of the study: that display ads provide a lift when used with search.

So What?

I'm not trying to trash display ads...or even self-referencing research (though the decline of display ad effectiveness is something predicted in the Themes for 2009 post). Heck, I'm not sure there's really a fundamental difference between an ad vehicle displayed based on the site a user visits and an ad vehicle that is displayed based on words a user types into a search engine.

I'm only suggesting that, as a group, advertising professionals quit fighting losing battles about 'changing client perceptions on the value of an impression online'. Clients understand paying for an action. Shoot, we all should understand that we get paid for doing something, not for the impression of doing something.

We're not serving clients, their brands, or the profession if we quote laughably biased and nonrigorous 'research' findings in support of impression-based buying online. Instead, let's propose online media plans that incorporate at least of few of the following components:

1. Driven by practical and directly measurable audience action on each impression
2. Demand a creative unit that has a call to action for each impression
3. Priced on performance against the action.
4. Prioritized in a media mix based on the action's value to the client (or their customer).

Plans for action online don't require a belief system built around ambiguously demonstrated offline ad concepts or research that helps us see what we already believe. Plans for action online do require a commitment to transparent measurement and to a definition of value that serves all stakeholders' needs...especially the client's.

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