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How to manage this messy moment in digital advertising

A computer cursor moves around the image on top of a turquoise messy scribble.

Illustration by Robyn Phelps / The Current

Over the last 18 months, we in the ad industry have found our ability to measure digital campaigns with accuracy compromised, especially when it comes to multi-touch attribution (MTA). There are several reasons for this, all of which you are probably familiar with: cookie deprecation, signal loss, ad blockers, privacy policies, etc. But the fact remains, things will get messier before they get more organized.

What do I mean by “messy”? Marketers now have to evaluate their digital performance in new, perhaps less familiar ways, reframing what we have always relied on. Year-over-year digital statistics are not going to provide beneficial insights — at least in the short term — and your old MTA model is probably suffering as well.

We’re trying so desperately to provide clients with results, and clients are looking for a silver bullet. As a result: We’ve inadvertently turned ourselves into performance marketers using performance marketing vehicles. We’re starting to embrace the last-touch attribution model again for all our campaigns, and we can’t seem to understand why brand perception is down. We got ourselves into this mess by looking at cookie-based data and now we need to look at multiple things to help get us out.

I say it’s “messy” because digital marketing will present challenges in the near future, and it’s going to require work. With MTA tools losing some of their accuracy, we need to pull a number of data and analytics sources together to help paint the picture of brand success. Sales will always be No. 1 and the true gauge of any campaign, but how we get there is up for debate. We are not only witnessing a revolution in digital tracking but also in the collapse of the traditional sales funnel.

The funnel as we once knew it is morphing into a collection of circles, or a traditional sales funnel with pinball flippers at the very bottom. Our process now involves coming into and out of the funnel at any time; we can buy at the top and educate ourselves at the bottom, and all the while we are in and out of the purchase process until we aren’t. How did we get there? We can give a good approximation, but linking digital unit A with 100% certainty to the final outcome can be hard to measure, and do we really know for sure what happened during the in-between parts?

So, how do we account for the “messy” nature of today’s digital advertising landscape? A few ways — all of them require work and all require some mess to be made.

  1. Client education (and buy-in!). For those clients who have kept the digital ad functions outside their walls, and have not in-housed yet, helping them to understand the daily upheaval in the landscape can prepare them for the fluctuations in reporting variability. Small percentage changes in performance are not a crisis, nor are larger ones. What is important is understanding the reasons behind those fluctuations and the optimizations that are being made to account for them.
  2. Brand perception studies. This is key. Sales are crucial in the digital landscape, but what does the public think of the brand? Sometimes, the brand perception study can provide more insight into just looking at A/B testing. The ability to tack on a brand perception study to a digital campaign has become so easy, it should be required for any client who drops the word “awareness” in a media brief.
  3. Understanding and adjusting for the collapse of the sales funnel as we know it. TV can sell and paid search can tell stories. Someone somewhere is thinking about your product after seeing a banner ad, and they might have just walked into a brick-and-mortar store because of it to buy a T-shirt. With the decline in the lack of cross-device tracking, especially in mobile, the foot-traffic measurement from banner ads might not work. This would bring us back to looking at overall business success as another metric to add into the reporting mix.

To get to a place of reporting and measuring performance in useful, actionable ways is going to take time, and a lot of inputs. It’s going to take client understanding, a holistic view of campaigns and new ways of incorporating data points into the overall picture. Yes, it will get messy, but I have a feeling that what we’ll end up making will be well worth it.

This op-ed represents the views and opinions of the author and not of The Current, a division of The Trade Desk, or The Trade Desk. The appearance of the op-ed on The Current does not constitute an endorsement by The Current or The Trade Desk.