The issue of measuring the real impact of marketing campaigns has always been thorny. With the adoption of web technologies it becomes more acute because of the theoretical capability to measure consumer behavior more accurately that is paradoxically coupled with considerable uncertainty as to the actual engagement of people when exposed to a commercial message. So how do we measure human engagement? Should we use time spent on a page as Nielsen seems to suggest?
When a teenager is in front of a TV set with their cell phone connected on a WiFi network allowing them to access their favorite instant messaging platform, how much of an impact do commercials actually make? When somebody surfs the web looking for something specific, are they really open to the ads and sponsored links that are being pushed their way? Given the considerable increase in the amount of content available, the competition grows fiercer for human attention, let alone for human attention that is coupled with an intention to buy. Things are made even more interesting by the fact that the debate is now open and not solely confined to the guild of advertisers and media owners. Indeed, while, for the past half century, everyone accepted established metrics as accurate proxies of the impact of marketing campaigns, the dirty little secret of marketing was that everybody knew that 50% of budgets were wasted although nobody could tell which 50% it was.
Today the debate is heated and many players, widely considered as authorities in the field of marketing metrics, are trying to push their latest theory about measuring the actual impact of ad campaigns. Such is the case of Nielsen who now seem to support the idea that the time spent in front of a page is actually a better proxy for the consumer's engagement (see Forbes's article and the interview of a Nielsen exec posted on AlwaysOn) than other indicators like page views or click through rates. This is surprising to say the least since the time during which a browser is connected to a page does not necessarily reflect the actual time a user spends considering the commercial messages on that page. Just as an example as I am writing this post, my Firefox browser has 11 tabs open which are connected on different web sites and blogs. Does that mean that while I am painstakingly trying to write proper English to express my views I am also engaged in all the ads shown in all the pages which are open in Firefox? Even if I were to assume that what is being measured is the active tab, I am not sure that when I am on my favorite online publication reading an article I am paying much attention to the banners and ads on display. While I do understand the rationale of Nielsen especially for video content (one page view for several minutes of attention on the video content, plus strong coupling between the content and the commercial messages "embedded" into the video stream), I fail to see why time spent on a page should be accepted as a general metric for user engagement online, let alone user engagement in commercial material published on that page. Perhaps there is a need to develop metrics for each type of format (text, audio, video, images...) accessed by people and to use systems like the Attention Recorder of Attention Trust to measure the amount of attention they devote to a specific piece of content? Perhaps people should be compensated based on data recorded by the attention recorder? Perhaps new forms of marketing are a necessity more than fancy innovation today...
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