The Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) has launched its latest initiative to understand more about the online behaviour, in a bid to provide advertisers with “a holistic understanding of what, where and how people are accessing the internet”.

The Holy Grail for the IAB is to provide “a single online planning currency” for marketers, to help them “plan their online brand campaigns against traditional media”.

The IAB has teamed up with National Readership Surveys (NRS), which will add an online element to the 3,000 face-to-face interviews it does each month with random consumers: “Areas covered in the study will include; demographic information, frequency of internet usage, where people are going online and how they are accessing the internet - for example by PC or through mobile devices.”

The trouble is, I don’t think this is what online media planners need...

The IAB, headed up by Guy Phillipson, has evangelised about the benefits of online advertising for many years, and has done a great job of elevating the profile of the internet as an advertising medium. Phillipson and his comrades are engaged in battle on two fronts:

1) convincing traditional marketers to embrace the internet and invest in online advertising, and...

2) convincing all marketers that online can be a brand channel.

Both of these missions remain challenging, to say the least.

We can to some degree ignore the first point. Old school marketers who haven’t yet taken a serious look at the web are somewhat redundant, or soon will be. These people have had years to migrate some of their offline ad budgets. Leave them be, and let’s focus instead on the converts.

The converts, who spend on average 11% of their marcomms budget online, typically view the internet as a channel for customer acquisition. Pay-per-click search marketing (PPC) is officially the lowest hanging fruit for these folk, and for lots of newcomers to online advertising too. They often spend around half of their total online marketing budget on PPC.

For PPC campaigns, return on investment (ROI) tends to be measured by looking at the total sales generated, minus media (keyword) costs and agency fees. It is very much about acquisition. Sure, we see brand campaigns here and there, but it is 99% acquisition.

So here’s the dilemma. How does the IAB convince more advertisers to increase spend on display ads like banners and skyscrapers?

Firstly it needs to change perceptions about the internet. It isn’t all about acquisition! The internet can be sensational for customer retention, customer communications and ultimately for building brands, although not necessarily all by itself.

The key to using the internet as a branding channel, and thus spending ad budgets on display ads (among other things), is to realise that it should be used as part of a broader ad campaign. You often see TV ads supported by press and radio campaigns. The internet is another extension of that strategy.

Dynamic Logic research has shown that cross-media campaigns lead to a higher uplift in the key brand metrics. The EIAA published similar research a couple of years ago.

In a nut, TV + online = higher ROI.

So it seems like a good idea to provide “a single online planning currency” for advertisers, who are used to common standards such as BARB, which ‘measures’ the reach of TV advertising. Right? I’m not so sure. I’m especially unsure when it comes to BARB.

The big problem here seems obvious. BARB has around 5,000 set-top boxes installed in the UK, representing about 11,000 viewers. Sky alone has about 7.5 million digital TV households. That’s a huge gap. Is accuracy not important in the sexy world of TV advertising? Is extrapolation and ‘best guess’ good enough? And if that’s ok for offline advertising, then it must be ok for online too?

I don’t think so. In an internet world we can measure on a one-to-one basis, so why settle for second best? What campaign planners and media buyers need is relevant stats and sector-specific (or site-specific) behavioural data. Yet this latest initiative from the IAB strikes me as being from the BARB school of thought: take a very small sample and start guessing.

Advertisers need proper stats. ‘Best guess’ might be good enough for offline measurement, but the hypocrisy is that it hasn’t been good enough for online, where accurate measurement is demanded by advertisers. Research is normally a good thing, but I just worry about the validity of some of the conclusions and forecasts that will follow in March 2007, when the IAB plans to publish its first findings.

So where should advertisers look for the data they need to plan campaigns?

Well, ABC Electronic validates publisher stats, although the vast majority of publishers have yet to invest in certification. Meanwhile, for a price, tools like Hitwise, Nielsen//NetRatings and Comscore can help advertisers understand online audience behaviour in specific market segments, and on specific websites. Even tools like Alexaholic might be more useful to media planners than data collated by NRS from “a random sample of 3,000 adults”. Google Trends could come in handy too.

Of course there is no single place where you can look for the data needed to plan online brand campaigns. E-consultancy has previously considered doing something in this area, and maybe we will, but until then advertisers are going to remain at the mercy of sample-based research and scattershot data.

I reckon the IAB would be much better served helping publishers figure out their long-term data strategies. Making sure web analytics tools are in place. Helping publishers capture the right sort of data and monitor audience behaviour in ways that will help advertisers. It will help publishers too – they’ll be able to charge higher premiums for targeting and segmentation. Maybe it will help users as well, with advertisers making ads more relevant, and hopefully ditching the intrusive ad formats that debase Big Media sites like The Guardian and The Times. Who knows?

In summary, I think the IAB needs to aim higher than “moving online towards parity with traditional media currencies”, which are no kind of benchmark for accuracy.

Chris Lake

Published 27 June, 2006 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

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Comments (2)


Paul Freeman-Sanderson, Senior Planning Executive at Internet Advertising Bureau

We welcome a number of the comments made in this article, in particular that the IAB is doing a great job in elevating the profile of the internet as an advertising medium. Chris has put forward an interesting argument, and the IAB always welcomes feedback on its initiatives. However, I’d just like to raise a few points in response…

The NRS is far more than just a ‘best guess’ - throughout the year 36,000 individuals are interviewed, providing robust data that is representative of the population as a whole. This joint initiative has been backed by the IPA and endorsed by their Digital Media Group (DMG), and will help both convince traditional marketers to embrace the internet and convince marketers that online is an effective brand channel, two of the most challenging missions outlined in Chris’s original note. The beauty of the online population survey, whilst not a planning tool in itself, is that it will be used by comScore and Nielsen NetRatings to make their data more consistent for media planners. The survey is an important and welcomed step towards a single currency, which is by no means the ‘Holy Grail’ for internet advertising but will be instrumental in securing a position of parity alongside traditional media.

The fact is there are major advertisers in the UK spending only 1 or 2% of 9 figure media budgets online and they are more familiar with planning campaigns on the basis of coverage and frequency. Meanwhile, we are working with advertisers to help them understand how online works in the media mix to improve brand scores and ROI. But you never know, our ultimate planning currency could be centred around engagement!

about 12 years ago

Ashley Friedlein

Ashley Friedlein, Founder, Econsultancy & President, Centaur Marketing at EconsultancyStaff

Maybe I’m missing something here (I’d welcome the IAB’s thoughts in reply) but this is being put forwards as: “the establishment of a single online planning currency” and “a breakthrough in online media planning”…

…when, from what I understand, this is essentially a piece of research into “what, where, and how people are accessing the internet” giving “advertisers and agencies access to regular, accurate data profiling the UK internet population.”

I think this research is a great idea and, hopefully, will become the bellwether standard for understanding internet usage within the multi-channel environment in a similar way that the IAB/PWC figures have become standard for looking at the growth in online ad spend.

I can see how this would help media planners and buyers plan their multi-channel campaigns. I’m not sure it will make them any better than what they can do with current tools, but it might at least make them more credible and authoritative and therefore easier to sell to advertisers. Given the IAB’s remit is to convince more advertisers to spend online then this is a good thing.

However, to talk about a single online planning currency and herald “a breakthrough in online media planning” I think we need quite a bit more. Specifically, in order for a “currency” to be of any use we need two things:

Firstly, the metrics. Has this finally been sorted out? The IAB press release seems to sidestep this one. What are the metrics that this single currency will use? How will we trade in this currency?

Secondly, the marketplace. Where can we spend our single currency? This is the biggest problem in my view. We all know that almost all online ad spend goes to less than 10 web sites. And we know that targeting niches would probably work better. But how do we find those sites? How we can trust their stats and ad serving? Can we compare apples with apples? Can we efficiently plan, buy, serve, track, report across 100s of sites? No, we can’t.

It’s quite a simple question and one which advertisers have been asking for years (e.g. see – how do I find and then work with sites relevant to my target market other than the usual suspects (AOL, MSN etc.)?

We’ve talked to all the big online media planners and buyers and they all have their own bespoke data for this. This has been built up over the years and is highly valuable to them.

To put it in the terms of ‘traditional’ media why isn’t there a BRAD directory (see for online? If offline can manage 13,500 media sources then I reckon online should be able to achieve a whole lot more.

Isn’t this something IAB could / should do? Not least because they could make a boat load of money out of it…

Somewhere I have a business plan from over 3 years ago looking at creating just such a tool / resource. At the time we didn’t pursue it because we felt it was so obviously something someone else would come in and do. And, as far as I know, still no-one has…

Ashley Friedlein

about 12 years ago

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