Playing catch-up

Editor's note: Jeri Smith is CEO at Communicus, a Tucson, Ariz., research firm.

While there’s rigorous debate about the best ways to measure advertising effectiveness, there is generally high-level agreement about how advertising works. Quite simply, the conventional wisdom holds that consumers see ads and thus are persuaded to think, feel or do something differently as a result of the ad experience.

From here, research paths diverge in a number of different directions, depending on individual vantage points. For example, insights professionals who focus on the creative aspects of the ad tell us that the ad must convey something meaningful or resonate emotionally. Those who live in the world of media planning and buying tell us that the ad will be more effective if it appears in the right environment or at the right time and they tell us that the ad’s persuasive power will wear out after too many exposures.

This is all true and very many wise and learned researchers and insights professionals have spent their careers fine-tuning and validating measurement approaches that are designed to evaluate and diagnose the persuasive power of an ad or a media buy. There have been hits and misses along the way but as of this writing, we have a relatively robust set of tools that can be employed to ensure that each individual ad, at least those with sufficient spending to be worthy of the research investment, is rigorously studied and optimized from both creative and media standpoints.

This is not to say that these tools can’t be further improved; of course they can. As the media environment continues to evolve, as our technological capabilities improve, as consumers become increasingly more ad-resistant and as marketing directors become ever more insistent on having data that enables “real-time” shifts, the tools with which we examine ad performance must continue to evolve.

However, the further we travel down the path of ad optimization, the further we may be getting from the reality of how advertising really works and how it really ought to be optimized.

Put another way, we are optimizing trees when we really should be studying forests. 

Outmoded model

Brand impressions and purchase decisions are rarely formed or changed based on a single ad any more than the experience of a stroll through the woods is shaped by the presence of a single tree. Unless your marketing communications campaign is comprised of just a single ad, research that focuses on one ad at a time is based on an outmoded model of how advertising works. 

In today’s world of advertising development, ad teams strive to develop campaigns that encompass multiple elements, including both traditional ads and all manner of newer, non-traditional forms of brand communications. As consumers have become both more ad-resistant and more empowered, the idea is to reach them in new ways, but with messages that – if well executed – all work in harmony to build the brand and move the consumer further down the path to purchase.

But we’re mostly all still studying that single tree – “Let’s make sure the branches are coming out at just the right angle and the leaves are perfect hues of green and it’s placed just the right distance from the trail.” 

We’re optimizing trees but paying little attention to the grass, the flowers, the birds singing in the trees. Oh sure, we can study those too – one at a time. As we’ve done with TV, we’ve developed methods that study online ads and we’ve got methods that study other branded communications including event sponsorships, program integrations and even those old-fashioned media types like OOH (out of home) and POS (point of sale) ads.

Our research approaches are remnants of the days when the TV commercial was dominant and when our audience – if not quite captive – was at least less empowered and accustomed to deciding for themselves what stimulus to attend to. The advertising team focused on producing that one, great commercial and we on the research side focused on helping them to optimize it. And while the advertising team has moved on, we mostly haven’t. We continue to focus on one ad at a time and that’s pretty much all we’ve trained them to expect from us. 

What’s missing is how advertising really works – all together, like the experience of a stroll through the woods or the sounds of a beautiful symphony as played by a skilled orchestra. What if we could tell our advertising partners how all of the brand communications that they’ve crafted work together to build the brand and also how each piece contributes?

Reexamine that premise 

Let’s reexamine that simple premise about how advertising works, but this time, let’s use the context of full, 360-degree campaigns instead of maintaining the one-ad context.

Consumers see a lot of different brand communications. In fact, they are exposed to far more than they actually see – just as that walker strolling through the woods might or might not notice particular trees, shrubs and patches of grass and might or might not hear a particular bird’s chirp.

At the end of it all, the consumer might or might not have an altered view of the brand from where they started. If their view has been altered, it’s highly likely that the transformation has occurred based on a particular combination of interactions with the brand and its story, perhaps in just the right combination and with each one occurring at a point in time when the consumer mind-set was in just the right space.

In order to fully understand whether, and how, advertising is working, we must be able to inform our brand and advertising constituents on both whether the campaign is working and which elements within it are contributing. 

The graphic in Figure 1 shows a simple way of thinking about it.

In order to evaluate and diagnose a campaign, this concept of how advertising works forces us to focus on specific consumers one at a time and examine:

  • what ads and other brand communications they’ve noticed;
  • whether, and how, these ads resonated with the consumer, individually, but importantly as part of the whole;
  • how seeing the totality of what they have seen has influenced them; and,
  • which elements produced what – and in what combinations.

The first step is to understand, among all of our communications pieces to which a given consumer is exposed, which she is even noticing. Of course, this question is inherent in much of the research that conceptualizes ad engagements as siloed experiences but within our construct, we’re interested in how ads help other ads to get noticed and how ads help other ads resonate better. 

For example, if a consumer has seen an ad that discusses a brand’s social responsibility initiatives and then on another day comes across an ad for the brand that is intended to produce a sale, will she be more likely to notice the second ad than if she hadn’t seen the first? Or will she notice the second ad but fail to link it with the correct brand based on the disconnect that she experienced from the two disparate messages?

These are just a few of the kinds of insights that we should be providing to help inform development of campaigns in which all of the parts work together to ensure that consumers are engaging with ads that resonate in ways that accomplish the ultimate brand building and sales objectives.

Actually altered how she feels

Once we understand how all of the campaign elements work together to gain the attention of the consumer, we can next examine the extent to which the unique combination of elements with which a particular consumer engaged has actually altered how she feels about, or behaves toward, the brand. Within a quantitative sample, we can begin to deconstruct the combinations of ad elements that produce the greatest amount of the changes that we desire.

For example, if our consumer who’s seen both the social responsibility ad and the brand-focused ad is more likely to buy our brand as a result, or if she feels more affinity for the brand, the layered messaging approach has accomplished its objective. Maybe the social responsibility campaign only builds affinity but not short-term sales. What then? Should it be considered a success? 

Wouldn’t the advertising teams who crafted these campaigns want these kinds of answers? If they could truly understand whether, and how, all of the campaign elements work together to accomplish the brand’s multiple objectives, they would be able to produce more finely crafted campaigns, not simply more intrusive and singly persuasive ads.

From a methodological perspective, one way to accomplish this is through the use of a longitudinal design. Specifically, by interviewing a relatively large sample of consumers at two points in time, determining what ad elements they’ve seen between the two points and identifying the changes in brand KPIs that have occurred among those who’ve seen different combinations of elements, we can begin to deconstruct the campaign elements that work together to accomplish the brand’s objectives.

Granted, none of this is simple. Which is perhaps one reason why the advertising research community has gravitated toward the quick, single-number evaluations that individual ad testing provides. Clearly, there is a role for the single-ad testing model. However, it’s also clear that the more comprehensive insights that can be gained from a comprehensive, campaign-focused approach to advertising effectiveness measurement can empower advertising teams to produce better, more effective advertising that respects the consumer and how she travels through her world.