Manfred Mareck reports on the morning sessions of Warc's "Future of Advertising Research Conference".

According to the latest findings from the UK TouchPoints survey, social media still only plays a small (albeit growing) role in consumers' lives. Still, social networks and the buzz they can generate are becoming an increasingly attractive channel for advertisers to connect with their customers or to create brand advocates. And this brings new challenges to advertising researchers - some of which were the topic of WARC's morning session of this year's Future of Advertising Research Conference.

With half a billion users globally (and around 28m in the UK) Facebook is clearly a force to be reckoned with. The rules of engagement need to learnt and are still developing. Facebook's Kathy Dykeman (EMEA Insight Specialist) suggested distinguishing between standard ads (those that drive traffic to a destination) and engagement ads (such as event ads, polls …).

It's the famous Facebook 'I like' button that allows users to let all their friends know whether or not they like an ad or a brand - this leads to a brand's 'earned' media space, i.e. the stories published about a brand and the buzz this generates.

To measure the effectiveness of social network campaigns, you can use a lightweight, single question polling tool on users' profile page to gauge ad awareness. Data is apparently very accurate and representative when compared to standard polls (such as Gallup) that are used as benchmarks. Using non-exposed individuals as a control group allows the calculation of how much a campaign contributes to brand awareness and other measures.

But, as one delegate pointed out, there are problems and serious concerns with these types of internet intercept studies and the IAB in the US is currently investigating this area as they found many issues with these types of surveys. Against this, it can be argued many online panels rely too often on respondents who opt in for financial reasons and other incentives.

A number of delegates felt that the whole concept of buzz and (electronic) word of mouth is somewhat over-hyped - maybe they too have seen the TouchPoints data?

Nevertheless, as Matthew Cain (Founder of Trufflenet) pointed out, social media does provide valuable opportunities for brands with plenty of data. At the same time, there can be uncertain outcomes - not everything in the digital world is controllable.
Graeme Lawrence (Director of Virtual Surveys) highlighted some of the issues when researching social media programmes. Researching social media is still a learning process, but clearly what's needed is better sampling, setting up research communities, tagging panellists to get a full picture of their behaviour and, most importantly, to listen first and then ask questions.

Traditional audience and impact measures (via exposed/non exposed samples) combined with marketing mix models to isolate contributions of individual media channels no longer works in the digital age, according to Ernie Kim (Senior VP at Synovate). Search advertising may be popular but often gets too much credit as search itself may be the result of influence from other media channels.

Traditional media, especially magazines and newspapers, still contribute a lot of ROI as well. If online ads do not generate many clicks, that doesn't mean they do not contribute to longer-term brand building. And e-Commerce sites may sometimes appear to be ineffective when people search and compare prices but don't buy. This isn't necessarily a sign of low ROI, what is happening is that the eCommerce site is driving traffic to an actual store.