Editor’s note: Jerry W. Thomas is president and chief executive of Decision Analyst, a Dallas-based research and consulting firm.

The advertising media landscape is aglitter with new possibilities. Web sites are universal. Social media is everywhere. Mobile is pervasive. There is a massive shift of media dollars away from traditional media (television, radio, print) to the new digital media everywhere. Advertising budgets are often reduced as brands transition to focusing on digital media. Along with the great migration to digital media is a frantic increase in the pace of creative development and rapid growth in the number of ads or commercials published – or aired – online. 

At the same time as the greatest change in media since the widespread adoption of television in the 1950s and 1960s, many advertising tracking surveys were abandoned – a result of the Great Recession and its aftermath. This meant that the macro effects of many brands’ shift to digital media were going unmeasured and uncharted.

The few brands doing survey-based advertising tracking today are increasingly suspicious that something is not right, that something is missing. Many companies are seeing brand and advertising awareness numbers remain stagnant or even decline – in spite of a rising tide of likes on Facebook and growing numbers of followers on Twitter. Could it be that digital media is less effective than traditional media? Some hypotheses to consider:

  • Few digital ads are based on up-front research or are tested before airing. No one knows if the ads will attract attention, what the ads are communicating or if they are effective. 
  • Most of the online space is cluttered and clutter tends to reduce the effectiveness of most ads.
  • Digital ads are frequently short-lived. New ads can be created quickly and inexpensively, so a digital campaign might include many different ads. Too many different ads can reduce advertising effectiveness.
  • The reach of most digital media tends to be narrow and a small percentage of heavy online users tend to dominate the traffic.
  • Many sites, if not most, are plagued with imaginary or inflated traffic statistics. The reach and frequency promised are seldom realized in actual practice and reliable measuring systems are not yet in place.
  • Marketing plans rarely take the necessary step of considering digital media by carefully researching and planning its role. 
  • Most digital ads can be deleted or interrupted by actions of the viewer.

OK, so how does a brand really know if its digital advertising is working? One measuring stick is survey-based ad tracking. Survey-based advertising tracking is increasingly important given the turmoil in media technology and media choices.

Reaching out to the target audience

A best practice is to track advertising by surveying the target audience. That includes tracking brand awareness; advertising awareness; advertising message recall; ad recognition; brand image and related usage; and trial data, all including demographics. Ad tracking is the acid test, the macro measure of overall advertising success or failure. Most importantly, the ad tracking must be consistently pursued year after year so that there is an unbroken chain of measurements.

Few companies have achieved this level of consistency in advertising tracking. Good advertising tracking is an essential advertising management tool. Marketers and researchers need to ask themselves if they are spending enough to maintain awareness, if their primary messages are getting through, if their competitors are outflanking them, if their advertising is having positive effects on the brand’s image and whether the media mix is optimal.

Without advertising tracking data, brands are adrift on dark and stormy seas. What are some other best practices to help companies navigate the rocks and shoals of digital advertising and digital media?

Perhaps the most important best practice is conducting solid, up-front research among the target audience so that development of advertising is guided by target audience needs, perceptions and motivations. Strategic positioning, marketing strategy and messaging should be based on research facts and evidence, not whim and intuition. Good qualitative research (focus groups, depth interviews, ethnography) is almost always a component of this up-front research, followed by testing of strategic positioning and advertising concepts. The goal is to develop a blueprint to guide creative development.

Another best practice is to test or pretest the commercials and ads before going public. No one is smart enough to simply guess how consumers are going to respond to a given commercial or ad and clear communication is a very difficult thing to accomplish. Commercials often convey hidden messages that go unnoticed by the creators. Spending media money on poorly-conceived and poorly-executed commercials is perhaps the greatest single waste of marketing dollars. The only way to ensure that the advertising creative is effective is to test it among consumers. Every commercial or ad should be tested so a body of knowledge about the advertising is growing from commercial to commercial.

The final best practice is media mix modeling. What type of media is most effective for your brand or what mix of media is most effective? What spending levels generate the greatest return on investment? Good advertising tracking data is a part of the media mix modeling data set. Multivariate statistical techniques are used to implicitly measure the effects of different media, spend levels and media mixes or combinations. The ultimate goal is to tease out cause and effect so that the return on advertising investment can by optimized by type of media and other variables.

Marketing mix modeling is not easy or inexpensive but it can help improve the returns on advertising investments by revealing the effects of online, mobile and social media versus traditional media.

The fundamentals of marketing and advertising success have not changed because of the digital revolution. If anything, the fundamentals are more important than ever. We must always remember that advertising has short- and long-term effects. Only with good, consistent research can both be measured and managed.