Web metrics: the quest for the Holy Grail

Anybody who has spent time with media websites knows the frustration of dealing with advertisers and the variety of methods of counting site traffic. When an advertiser’s metrics don’t jibe with the site’s metrics, there’s tension, to say the least. Much has been written about the issue, but here’s a really good in-depth analysis from Susan Kuchinskas at iMedia Connection.

Despite methodological convergence, there’s no way that everyone’s audience measurements — or even any two services — are going to match. Still, in this numbers game, the big winners will always be the measurement companies, because only they can provide any sense of credibility.

This is a fascinating and controversial topic, and we recommend that our clients at least add Google Analytics to the pages of their sites. GA provides a very good set of free 3rd-party data that publishers can use to present to advertisers. This is especially important locally, for the case can always be made to local advertisers that other sites in town could provide GA data as well.

But if I can put on my cynic’s hat for a moment, the energy behind this quest for the Holy Grail is the creation a paradigm for web advertising that takes a lot of the work out of selling, something for which traditional media companies are famous. We want to get back to the “science” of mass marketing, because that’s what we know. We’re quite happy making money via gross rating points and cost-per-thousand impressions. The problem I’ve always had with this is that the medium isn’t the best for brand advertising, and that’s what mass marketing delivers. The web is dynamite for transactional advertising, but that’s not what the agencies want. In the end, it’s going to come down to what “works” for the advertisers, and that may not be reliable 3rd-party data.

In a guest commentary for MediaPost four years ago, Kathy Sharpe of Sharpe Partners in New York wrote that the whole advertising industry was based on intricate myths, and it wasn’t so much that its foundation was cracking as it was that there never was a “real” foundation in the first place, “just a series of shared beliefs, like a religion or a culture.”

Did Nielsen ever offer more than a gross proxy for the real television audience? No, but that was okay, as long as that stand-in was big and growing (and the one with the most buying power). Were media planners ever blind to the implications of magazines inflating circulation numbers with cheap subscription drives? Even in the days of the two-martini lunch, everyone knew that the value of the impression had to decline. It’s just that nobody much cared to do anything about it. Certainly, nobody from the agencies would; and even advertisers blithely ignored it because there was no alternative to TV other than print.

But the web has changed everything for advertisers, because its value proposition is precise measurement, and this is what’s getting lost in this cry for reliable 3rd-party data. There is so much money (and jobs) at stake in the maintenance of the advertising status quo that agreement on some form of outside measurement is highly likely. But in the end, only advertisers themselves will be able to state whether the dollars they’re spending are returning in the form of business, and on that, the jury is most certainly still out.

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