In an effort to standardize the often puzzling formulas used to gauge the effectiveness of Internet marketing, a trade group will release a set of guidelines today for measuring online advertising campaigns.
The Interactive Advertising Bureau, a New York-based trade group generally referred to as the I.A.B., developed the voluntary guidelines in collaboration with eight prominent Web publishers and two advertising technology firms. According to the group, the 10 participants creating the specifications together represent nearly two-thirds of total industry revenue.
The Ad Campaign Measurement and Audit Guidelines are intended to make uniform the various incompatible systems that evaluate the viewing (and clicking) of Internet advertisements. Although marketers once praised the accountability of Internet ad delivery, they have subsequently de-emphasized it. The once much vaunted measurability of Internet advertisements has revealed that the path a consumer takes from seeing an ad on a Web page to actually making a purchase is rather lightly traveled.
"The problem is that the click- through is not really a good measure," said Hairong Li, an assistant professor of advertising at Michigan State University and the editor of the Journal of Interactive Advertising. "People won't click unless they have a real need at that moment," he said. "But even if you do not click, you still see the message. So we've found that branding is really the essence of advertising."
But branding is tricky to quantify in any medium, and lacking basic standardization, it has been exceedingly hard to track online. "Everybody has measured things differently," said Greg Stuart, the president of the bureau. "They weren't doing anything wrong. But there was no standard identified so that publishers, agencies and advertisers were all on the same page."
The bureau says that its new guidelines will drastically cut down on confusion and data discrepancies. According to Mr. Brown, the new methodology will ultimately provide "the building blocks to do rating points and reach frequency, which is the language and the tools of media planners, and a language we need to speak; it's the foundation for pushing the industry forward."
A team of consultants from PricewaterhouseCoopers took six months to complete what is known as the process audit, and came up with five crucial measures to gauge Internet marketing: ad impressions, clicks, page impressions, total visits and unique visits.
Tom Hyland, the chairman of the PricewaterhouseCoopers New Media Group, said participants were already using each of these yardsticks but often in different ways. He also said that the new standards would make possible independent verification and auditing of advertising data, similar to that done in financial accounting or print circulation.
Trying to stay afloat during the worst media recession in years, advertisers and Web publishers have recently grown increasingly aggressive in their online marketing efforts. Techniques that were once considered offensive - like the use of pop- under ads or commercials with unexpected audio - have become common even on mainstream Web sites.
Still, the state of online advertising is not as desperate as some in the old media make it out to be. According to Jupiter Media Metrix, an Internet research firm, total online ad spending was almost $5.69 billion last year, or more than 3 percent of the total advertising market. Furthermore, total online ad dollars spent - and the percentage of the entire advertising market those dollars represent - have sharply increased each year since 1996. Jupiter Media Metrix predicts that over $15 billion a year, or fully 7 percent of all advertising spending, will move online by 2006.
Given the industry's overall growth, some participants in the process seemed surprised that a commonly agreed upon ratings standard had not been established earlier. "We apologize for having taken so long," Mr. Stuart said. "But the retrenching has allowed us to get very focused."
Mr. Stuart indicated that meeting the voluntary guidelines could cost some publishers and marketing companies hundreds of thousands of dollars. Scott Spencer, a director of product management at DoubleClick, the Internet advertising network, said his company was already "very close to meeting all of the requirements that the bureau agreed to, without needing any changes."
Once in common use, Mr. Spencer said, the new standards "will make the marketplace much more efficient and take out uncertainty for advertisers and publishers alike." In addition to the advertising technology companies Avenue A and DoubleClick, AOL, CNET, Disney, Forbes Online, MSN, Terra Lycos, New York Times Digital and Yahoo participated in the bureau's review process.
Anke Audenaert, director of global market research for Yahoo, said the standards were largely a response to the "advertisers that have been asking for it." Most advertisers used the same rating concepts, she said, "but each defined the concepts differently."
Because the bureau's guidelines are voluntary - "for antitrust reasons," Mr. Stuart said - there is some question whether they will be widely adopted. I/PRO, a San Francisco-based Internet company, issued similar ad traffic measurement guidelines yesterday, saying they were "the online auditing industry's first public standard."
Jeff Dieffenbach, I/PRO's director of product management, said the standards could be used for general traffic measurement as well as ad measurement.
The I/PRO guidelines, however, were a surprise to Mr. Stuart. "I really thought their business had closed," he said. "The I.A.B. is the only organization that can bring to bear this kind of change in the industry."
Andrew Zipern, The New York Times. January 15, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.