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.