The Importance and Implications of Planning Integrated Online Campaigns

Nick Drew

Online continues to grow as an advertising medium; within the next year or two, it's expected to overtake TV in terms of advertising revenue in the UK. While it's unsurprising in the current economic climate that the growth of online advertising revenue is slowing, it's also clear that online is generally regarded as a safer investment for advertising budgets than other media. 

Not only is it relatively cost-effective, but it allows hugely creative advertising, and offers accountability and measurement options unmatched by most other media. But it's too simplistic to think about 'online' as a single homogenous medium. As consumers, we consume many different media every day, and our use of the internet is similarly diverse - from email to topical sites, video-sharing to online banking and beyond. 

It makes sense that the best advertising campaigns encompass different online formats and present the consumer with a relevant message at each stage of the online journey, be that through display, search, email or video, or newer formats such as in-game or mobile advertising. It's not necessarily about spending more, rather spending more strategically by thinking about the consumer's online 'journey' and reflecting that path in the marketing plan. 

It isn't a new concept - the best marketers have known for some time the advantages of diversifying campaigns across complementary formats - but, until recently, there was little research empirically proving the point or showing just how much value is gained by planning across more than one online advertising channel. 

Proving the point

To understand the theory better, Microsoft Advertising conducted several studies exploring the added value in combining search and display elements in an integrated online campaign. Each study focused on a particular campaign that encompassed these formats; one each in the key categories of finance, travel and technology, in both the UK and France.

The research used comScore's panel of internet users, and relied on identifying consumers exposed to the display advertising in a campaign, those who saw the search activity, and those who saw both the search and display elements. Because of the nature of the panel, it was possible to track these consumers' online behaviour and investigate changes resulting from their exposure to the advertising. 

Unsurprisingly, the exact results varied from campaign to campaign - after all, no two advertising plans are identical in terms of aims, execution or timing - but the underlying patterns and implications were consistent and clear across all the studies.

Display - pushing consumers down the purchase funnel

The research explored how the display advertising in a campaign affects consumers' online behaviour. By tracking panellists' search activity before and after exposure, the research showed that after seeing the display creatives in a particular campaign, consumers were 54% more likely to search on brand keywords relating to that campaign (specific relevant brand terms, as well as key taglines and messages used in the display advertising). To put it another way, seeing the display advertising prompted 54% more consumers to search on the advertiser's key brand terms.

This is a key finding in itself - a consumer searching on an advertiser's brand terms is one step closer to visiting that advertiser's website, finding out more information and ultimately making a purchase, whether offline or online. And it shows the inherent importance of the display campaign in generating interest among consumers, even if the ads themselves are not directly generating clickthroughs or purchases.

Search and display - more effective together

Using the methodology described, the research compared the online behaviour of consumers exposed to the different elements of the campaign with that of consumers who had not seen any of the advertising. For each test (exposed) group of consumers, a control group of consumers who had not seen the advertising was selected from comScore's panel, carefully matched with the test subjects in terms of demographics and prior online behaviour. 

Comparing the behaviour of the control and test groups during and after the campaign showed the effect of the display advertising on its own (ie how the behaviour of consumers who only saw the display advertising compared with those who had not seen it), the search advertising on its own and the combination of the search and display advertising (comparing those consumers who saw both the search and display advertising with the control group of consumers who had seen neither).

The first measure that the research used was visits to the advertiser's website. Across the three campaigns, exposure to the display advertising alone prompted a small increase in the proportion of consumers who visited the advertiser's site (compared with consumers who had not seen any of the advertising); the impact of the search advertising in isolation varied from campaign to campaign. However, across the studies, the combination of the two was consistently much stronger, the effect of seeing both the display and search advertising was up to 15 times greater than that of the display alone and several times larger than the search advertising's impact. 

Although not a universal benchmark, consumer engagement is used by some advertisers as a measure of the impact of their advertising, and so the research incorporated engagement metrics for each campaign. Using the same methodology, the research compared the increase in page impressions and consumer time spent on the advertiser's websites resulting from each element of the campaigns. The results showed a similar underlying pattern - individually, the search and display advertising prompted an increase in consumer engagement on the advertisers' websites, but the combination of the two was much more effective at driving increased engagement. 

ComScore's technology can track panellists as far as the secure pages on a website: this acts as a useful indication of purchase activity while avoiding privacy issues associated with recording actual online purchases.

As with the previous measures, the research assessed the increase in converting traffic resulting from each portion of the advertising campaign. While the sample sizes were small, the pattern remained consistent: seeing just the display advertising prompted a slight but noticeable increase in converting traffic to the advertiser's website; the search advertising in isolation had a slightly larger impact, but the combination of the two was the most effective at increasing purchases, with an impact greater than the sum of its parts.

Search and display: 2+2=5

The results of this and similar research are not revolutionary, but are important in putting numbers to the theory of reinforcing an advertising message at stages in the purchase process. The first finding shows that display advertising works in prompting consumers to search on relevant keywords, pushing them a step closer to making a purchase. It also illustrates that while search may be the most powerful tool for attracting consumers already in the market to make a purchase, display is a key means of widening the scope of a campaign to those consumers who had not yet thought explicitly about such a purchase. 

The second part of the research indicates that while search and display advertising individually have an impact, the combination of the two is far greater than either individually. In other words, if a consumer has seen a display advert for a particular brand and later sees a search ad when searching in that product area, the association of the advertising will make him more likely to click through to that brand's website, and once there, spend more time and be more likely to make a purchase than a consumer who had seen only one form of the advertising.

It's also worth reiterating that adding together search and display advertising increases the impact of the campaign beyond simply (the effect of the search)+(the effect of the display). This additional performance can be regarded as the 'media multiplier' effect, or simply the result of a campaign that reinforces its message to consumers at stages along the purchase funnel. Either way, for advertisers concerned with return on investment, it's clear that the bang per buck is greatly increased by combining the two elements in a campaign.

Integration and its implications

Obviously getting the full benefit of this value takes work. For example, the search campaign needs to be planned in a complementary way to make the most of search activity resulting from the display advertising. And this is true not only of the online schedule, but also any offline elements of the campaign: the best campaigns switch seamlessly from offline to online (and back again) with consistent messages and hooks between the formats. 

These findings also have implications for the ways in which advertisers measure the value and performance of online campaigns. With conventional reporting (search campaign performance in one report, display performance in another), problems of duplication arise as individual consumers see multiple different elements of the same campaign. In addition, as the data show, individual elements of the campaign have an effect that is not picked up by measures of impressions or clickthrough rates. The first two charts illustrate that while the display portion of a campaign may not directly result in a large number of clickthroughs to the advertiser's website, it does prompt people to make a search (seeing the search advertising in the process), and greatly increases the impact of the search advertising. 
In this regard, an ad that is clicked may not be the most successful part of the campaign, but may simply be converting consumer interest generated by previous parts of the campaign. 

The chart above illustrates this point - if each of the figures represents a converting consumer, and the £ sign the point at which each makes a purchase, the circles show the points at which each comes into contact with the advertiser's campaign. What this shows is the 'path to conversion' for each consumer - the points at which they saw advertising from this campaign (and the particular element from the campaign that they saw at each point) before their final decision to make the purchase.