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Monday, November 24, 2008

Let the Attribution Debate Rage On, and on, and on

While we certainly admit that paid search is best at converting high intent prospects into customers and leads, and it isn't always the greatest for other kinds of demand generation, the recent escalation in citations of studies -- like the Atlas study cited in a recent SEL article that shows that "93-95% of audience engagements with online advertising receive no credit at all when advertisers review campaign ROI" -- smacks of protesting too much.

Upon further, close study -- with a large panel for example -- you can show that more folks viewing a wide swath of display ads online are slightly more likely to purchase than the control group not exposed to those ad impressions. From here, we are supposed to "attribute" x% more ROI to the display ads.

But wait. These studies don't make much effort to ask additional tough causal (ahem, we are calling it attribution, so we are assuming causality, so...) questions, such as, did those exposed to the display ads get exposed to them because of any of the following?:

  • They're a member of an enthusiast group that likes a certain topic, and so for that reason they are more likely to read the content on niche websites, so for reasons of being such an enthusiast in the first place, and being exposed to that content, at least as much if not more than being exposed to the display ads, they are in turn more likely to be found buying related items within the study period? Let's say I have warts, and go to a warts information site, that happens to run a few ads for "Warts Off." I happen to buy "Warts Off" in a drugstore based on some urgent need, and the colorful display case in the drugstore, that month. How much of that purchase intent, if anything, do I attribute to the online display ads? Who knows?
  • They are exposed to a heavy blitz of advertising on: TV, radio, print, outdoor, in-store, direct mail, etc. For that reason, based on searches, serendipity, etc., they're more likely to be exposed to certain display ads as well. As a result of the overall media buy, that group does buy a product during the study period. But arguably, the online display ads being supposedly viewed during that period had relatively little impact on the purchase. Sometimes they play a significant role, sometimes they play very little role (spurious correlation only). Sorting out one case from the other isn't high on the agenda of those who sell digital display ads for a living, needless to say.
  • Add to this second point, brand equity built up over centuries. Maybe some kinds of advertising lead to more purchase behavior, and others don't. And others lead to more online engagement generally, with display ads being part of that journey but not, perhaps, adding significantly to purchase causality. Perhaps the test group is more susceptible to the control group generally to this historic brand equity, and the increase in their viewing of relevant online display ads is caused by the impact of that historic brand equity on their online behavior overall.
  • Alexander Hamilton's face is on every $10 bill, but his brand isn't doing so hot. Thomas Jefferson, meanwhile, has a strong brand, and he's only on the 2, and there are hardly any of those in circulation. What is a fair CPM rate for either gentleman to pay for this type of exposure? This has nothing to do with the above points, but I thought I'd point it out. Food for thought.
Only one takeaway here, really: there's nothing wrong with giving a lot of credit to the channel that produces truly measurable ROI, and if you're prepared to go through contortions to "scientifically" prove "attributability" to other forms of advertising, be prepared to accept that the casuality debate may just continue to rage on, with everyone from product engineers, to infomercial producers, to "house article" writers, to word-of-mouth guerrillas, to everyone else involved with promoting a product or brand, to continue to clamor for their fair share of credit.

Bottom line, if online display is so great and you can really prove that, the price will rise. If you can't, it won't. The judges of your science will be the ad buyers, in the end.

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