The fundamentals of marketing and advertising success have not changed because of the digital revolution. Jerry W. Thomas outlines some best practices to help companies navigate the hazards of digital advertising and digital media.

The advertising media landscape is aglitter with new possibilities. Websites are universal. Social media is everywhere. Mobile is pervasive. Massive shifts of media dollars away from traditional media to the new digital media are evident everywhere. Advertising budgets are often reduced as brands transition to greater use of digital media. Along with the great migration to digital media is a frantic increase in the pace of creative development and rapid growth in the number of ads or commercials 'aired'.

Many advertising tracking surveys were abandoned as a result of the Great Recession and its aftermath – on the eve of the greatest change in media since the widespread adoption of television in the 1950s and 1960s. This means that the macro effects of many brands' shift to digital media have gone largely unmeasured and uncharted.

The few brands that are still doing survey-based advertising tracking are increasingly suspicious that something is not right, that something is missing (like the missing energy in the universe, the so-called dark energy). Many brands are seeing brand and advertising awareness numbers remain stagnant or even decline, despite a rising tide of 'likes' on Facebook and growing numbers of followers on Twitter. Could it be that digital media is less effective than traditional media? Here are some hypotheses to consider.

First, few of the digital ads are based on upfront research or are pretested before 'airing'. No one knows if the ads will attract attention. No one knows what these ads are communicating. No one knows if these digital ads are effective. Second, most of the online space is a cluttered world; clutter tends to reduce the effectiveness of most ads. Third, digital ads are frequently short-lived. New ads can be created quickly and inexpensively, so a digital campaign might include many different ads. Too many different ads can reduce advertising effectiveness. Fourth, the reach of most digital media tends to be narrow, and a small percentage of heavy online users tend to dominate the traffic. Fifth, many sites, if not most, are plagued with imaginary or inflated traffic statistics. The reach and frequency promised are seldom realised in actual practice, and reliable measuring systems are not yet in place. Sixth, the role of digital media in the marketing plan must be carefully researched and planned to be effective. Rarely are these steps taken. And finally, most digital ads can be deleted or interrupted by actions of the viewer.

So how can a brand really know if its digital advertising is working? The ultimate measuring stick is survey-based ad tracking. Perhaps at no time in the past 75 years has survey-based ad tracking been more important than it is now, given the turmoil in media technology and media choices.

A best practice is to track advertising by surveying the target audience. That includes tracking brand awareness, advertising awareness, advertising message recall, ad recognition, brand image, and related usage and trial data, along with demographics. Ad tracking is the ultimate macro measure of overall advertising success or failure. Most importantly, the ad tracking must be consistently pursued so that there is an unbroken chain of measurements.

Few companies have achieved this level of consistency in tracking their advertising. Good ad tracking is an essential advertising management tool. Today's companies should ask themselves if they are spending enough to maintain awareness, if their primary messages are getting through, if their competitors are outflanking them, whether their advertising is having positive effects on the brand's image, and whether the media mix is optimal.

Without advertising tracking data, brands are adrift on stormy seas. What are some other best practices to help companies navigate the hazards of digital advertising and digital media?

Perhaps the most important best practice is solid, upfront research among the target audience so that development of advertising is guided by target audience needs, perceptions and motivations. Strategic positioning, marketing strategy and messaging should be based on research facts and evidence, not intuition. Good qualitative research is almost always a component of this upfront research, followed by testing of strategic positioning and advertising concepts. The goal is a blueprint to guide development of the creative.

Another best practice is to test or pretest the commercials and ads before they go public. No one is smart enough to guess how consumers are going to respond to a given commercial or ad. Clear communication is a very difficult thing to accomplish. Commercials often convey hidden messages that even their creators do not notice. The only way to ensure that the advertising creative is effective is to test it among target-audience consumers. Every commercial or ad should be tested so a body of knowledge about the advertising is growing from commercial to commercial.

The final best practice is media-mix modelling. What type of media is most effective for your brand, or what mix of media is most effective? What spending levels generate the greatest ROI? Good advertising tracking data is a part of the media-mix modelling data set. Multivariate statistical techniques are used to implicitly measure the effects of different media, different spend levels, and different media combinations. The goal is to tease out cause and effect so that the ROAI can be optimised by type of media and other variables.

Marketing-mix modelling is not easy, but it can help improve the ROAI by revealing the effects of online, mobile and social media vs. traditional media.

The fundamentals of marketing and advertising success have not changed because of the digital revolution. If anything, the fundamentals are more important than ever. We must remember that advertising has short- and long-term effects and it is only with good, consistent research that these effects can be measured and managed.