Stop looking for the Holy Grail of digital measurement

Despite what you've been sold, brands must embrace a bit of complexity to maximize their spending

By Laura Main, Sales Director, Quantcast

Let me know if this sounds familiar.

A vendor comes knocking, offering you a remarkably simple system to measure your digital display. Their solution combines all your complex, real-time, first-party data into a single shiny metric. Gone are all the spreadsheets, charts and data science lingo. All you are left with is that one, easy-to-understand score to show how effective your display spending has been at reaching an audience.

There is beauty in simplicity. But simplicity is risky for marketers.

There is no Holy Grail of digital measurement. The complexity of modern media makes measurement a tough task, but marketers do their brands no favours when they go looking for that one, singular number to validate strategy. Every metric you look at, every audience you target — every methodology you use —  must all be evaluated as part of a cohort.

Dr. Peter Day, chief technology officer at Quantcast, recently gave a talk comparing current media measurement to the financial industry circa 2008, when it paid a huge price for valuing simplicity over accuracy.  (If your memory of what caused the housing crisis is a bit foggy, The Big Short gives a short, effective summary.)

“I believe one of the fundamental causes of the 2008 financial crisis was that we had reduced all of the complexity of people buying houses — and not being able to afford to pay for those houses — into three simple metrics [rating, term and yield],” Day said. Before he joined Quantcast, Day worked for 12 years in the financial markets, so he had a front row seat in 2008.

“Aggregate metrics hide a lot of sins,” he said. “Looking back, we had a lot of people not seeing the forest for the trees. That’s an understatement.”

Remember when click rates were the hottest thing going? It seemed to make sense to measure engagement with clicks (and it still does in channels like search). More recently, we’ve seen a similar focus on viewability metrics.

The problem with focusing on a single metric is twofold. Firstly, no metric is without its flaws. Clicks are easy to measure, and low-hanging fruit in our post-cookie world, but it turns out clicks are rarely conversions… so what are we actually tracking?

Viewability is great because we know a real human actually saw our ad, but when put on a pedestal, viewability severely limits available inventory. According to Quantcast’s 2020 global campaign data, inventory with at least 60% viewability represents less than 25% of all inventory available.

No metric is perfect. Every ad on this page is very viewable… at the cost of accessible content and reader experience.

Competition for that premium space has driven up prices. Does it make economic sense to to spend three times as much on an ad that is 60% likely to be viewed than it is to spend a third of that on one that’s 40%?

Secondly, using Holy Grail metrics brings unintended consequences. Our click obsession gave us click farms. And viewability has incentivized publishers to transform their properties so ads get crammed to the top of content pages, then follow you down the page while you scroll, and squeeze the content you actually want to see to the periphery.

During his talk, Day reminded the audience of Goodhart’s Law: when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. “We obsess over what’s measurable rather than measuring what is of value,” Day said.

This happens, in part, because of how organizations homogenize success. The CFO, CMO and front-line marketing team all have very different jobs with different goals, yet many organizations use their Holy Grail metric to guide all three. How can a single measure justify budget levels (as the CFO requires), steer budget allocation (as the CMO requires) and drive continual, rapid improvement (as the execution team requires)?

Smart marketers embrace complexity, using different approaches while weighing the pros and cons of each. They understand that choosing what to measure impacts the entire marketing supply chain (i.e. clickthroughs beget click farms).

Measurement is supposed to be hard. It’s our fundamental challenge as marketers. It sets the bar for the trillions we spend every year trying to engage with Canadians. There likely never will be a Holy Grail of measurement, no matter what those smiling vendors want to sell you.

Laura Main is sales director at Quantcast in Toronto. She has more than a decade of experience in Canada’s digital media industry.