Better Measures for Web Ads

Monday, January 14, 2008

As anyone with a teenager in the house knows, today's consumers live in an era of multitasking. We're watching "Lost" with the phone tucked between shoulder and ear while reading e-mail and conducting three chats via instant messaging.

Our changing media consumption habits have challenged the methods developed to measure consumers' exposure to Internet advertising. This becomes important to consumers, because for most Internet content to remain free, advertising is the best business model for paying the freight.

In many ways, advertising is a lot like physics; they're both about time and space. For traditional media, those lines have always been clearly defined. Newspaper, magazine and billboard advertisers buy space; TV and radio advertisers buy time.

The online advertising business originally relied on a spatial construct -- banner ads placed on a Web page. Increasingly, online advertisers are migrating toward a temporal construct -- ads that exist in time -- especially with the advent of online video.

Historically, media math has been pretty simple: "how many" and "how much." "How many" is the unduplicated audience of a media campaign. Online, for example, our measure of the unduplicated audience is the number of unique visitors to a Web site. "How much" gets at the amount of the medium consumed. Did a viewer watch one hour of TV or 15?

In the mid-'90s, the business aligned around the page view as the best way to track Internet consumption. A page view is generated when one computer loads one Web page one time, regardless of whether the user stays on the page for two seconds or a half hour (indeed, regardless of whether there is anyone in front of the computer at all).

Lately there has been controversy around the efficacy of the page view as the gauge of Internet consumption. A new technology called Ajax enables content to be refreshed on screen without serving a new page view.

Consider Google Maps, where users can zoom in or add features to the map they are looking at. They stay on the same Web page, without a "page refresh," even though the map changes. That led a ComScore competitor to announce that it would stop providing page-view-based rankings.

Meanwhile, everyone even peripherally interested in advertising knows about the industry's deepening love affair with engagement.

Engagement represents an attempt to capture the quality of a consumer's exposure to content. Not all exposures are engaged exposures, and we want our measurement of ad media to account for the difference. It goes beyond "how many?" and "how much?" to ask "how good?"

These two developments -- the decline in the efficacy of the page view and the increased demand for engagement -- are arguments for a reconsideration of time and space. Specifically, I contend that we should move from page views to duration-based audience metrics. That, in turn, requires thinking about how consumers pay attention.

Maybe we need to think about online media consumption in two flavors: "time spent" and "engaged time spent." What if we could track the time consumers spend with each Web property -- pages, audio, video, IM or widgets -- in a way that allows for capturing multitasking behavior?

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