Despite the turbulence of last year – or, perhaps, because of it – the marketing community unveiled a wide range of research and fresh thinking that can help boost effectiveness in 2021 and beyond. 

As the industry aims to rebuild and recover this year, the new WARC Guide to new research in marketing brings together several of the most powerful insights for brand custodians to consider as they map out their strategies during a period of on-going uncertainty.

1. “Share of search” is a valuable metric 

A brand’s share of organic online search queries is a powerful way for marketers to determine short- and long-term ad effects and even predict future changes in market share. 

In its simplest form, this “share of search” metric gives brands a new benchmark to gauge performance within their category and to forecast future sales, too.

Its usefulness as a metric can be further enhanced through various applications to improve strategic diagnosis and performance, as explained in research by Les Binet, group head of effectiveness at adam&eveDDB, and James Hankins, the founder of Vizer Consulting.

2. “Digital availability” and “digital rent”

Researchers, such as Professor Byron Sharp, from The Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, have argued that building mental and physical availability are key factors in driving brand growth, as they make it easier for shoppers to notice and buy a brand.

In the age of e-commerce, however, marketers are also required to manage their “digital availability”. This notion represents  an extension of physical availability and is focused on “driving penetration growth of the availability concept: better thinking and better marketing helps everyone”, according to Hankins. 

Put simply: if you want to sell online, you have to be found. Dr Grace Kite, managing director at Gracious Economics, has argued that online – and, especially, search – ads are not only similar to a digital storefront, but are an extension of physical availability.

“Online ads […] act as signposts for e-commerce businesses,” Kite wrote. “They’re the modern equivalent of the name over the high street front door, or the lights that stay on inside the shelf space or even the entry in the Yellow Pages.”

The suggestion here is that digital ads are akin to “the new rent” that must be paid in order for brands to sustain their position. As such, a brand needs to carefully consider how it “shows up” online. As well as the basics like visibility in search, online reviews and shopping lists” are also important factors here. 

3. Making sense of the “messy middle” 

Research from Google and The Behavioural Architects provides another critical insight into the role of marketing in the age of e-commerce.

It's easier for consumers to be curious online, they asserted, as the cognitive output required to explore is reduced in the digital context.

This study also identified a number of shortcuts used by online shoppers to navigate abundant information and unlimited choice – otherwise known as the “messy middle” of consumer decision-making. 

More specifically, a massive shopping simulation found that by manipulating how brands were represented based on six key behavioural biases, consumers could be easily persuaded to ditch their previously preferred brands. Even brands with no equity can win in the “messy middle”. 

4. Reaching the “movable middle” 

Marketers often prioritise reaching as many potential buyers as possible. Some of these shoppers are already heavy or loyal buyers and some are brand switchers but the great majority are non-buyers. 

New research from the Mobile Marketing Association and Neustar says brands should focus their advertising on a subset of consumers – called the “movable middle” – which includes consumers  with a 20-80% probability of buying a particular brand. This approach avoids both the great majority of consumers who have no interest in buying and those people who would buy a brand anyway. 

Members of the “movable middle”, by contrast, are five times more responsive to advertising. 

5. Measuring attention is critical 

Viewability has largely failed as a measure of advertising effectiveness, and marketers are pushing for impression measurement reform. In response, many brands, agencies and media owners are now converging on the idea of measuring consumer attention. Researchers including Prof. Karen Nelson-Field, the CEO of Amplified Intelligence, have also begun calculating how attention can be used as a quantifiable metric.

In short, advocates of attention argue it can provide a missing “relative quality” layer in media planning; Nelson-Field uses the analogy of a grocery unit pricing, with attention as a common metric of value, to help advertisers compare channel performance. By using this currency, attention could disrupt numerous aspects of creative and media planning.

New cross-media attention research from Lumen similarly attempts to show how much more visual engagement ads in one media generate than another, and if this extra attention is reflected in the price advertisers pay.

6. The Creative Effectiveness Ladder 

Turning to creativity, the white paper The Effectiveness Code introduced two new concepts to marketers and their agencies: the Creative Effectiveness Ladder, a hierarchy of effects based on commercial impact, and Creative Commitment, a planning tool that helps maximise those effects. Together, they offer a new way to think about and plan effective communications.

Developed by WARC and Cannes Lions, and written by James Hurman, the founder of innovation company Previously Unavailable and small-business marketing platform Storytech, the research was based on a study of more than 4,000 case studies on WARC, backed up by analysis of the IPA Databank of case studies by researcher Peter Field. 

The Effectiveness Ladder provides a clear, consistent approach, and a shared language, for benchmarking effectiveness globally. WARC’s recently launched WARC Effectiveness Awards also integrates the WARC/Lions Creative Effectiveness Ladder framework into its judging criteria for this worldwide competition.

7. Using neuroscience to further diversity

The need for brands to double down on diversity and inclusion was made painfully apparent in 2020, when the killing of George Floyd set off a wave of protests, on a global scale, that shined a light on systemic racism. 

Chasson Gracie and Joshua Richards, colleagues at John St. Advertising, formed a local Toronto chapter of WPP Roots, which is devoted to championing diversity. They believed that one important problem for the advertising industry to overcome was that studies showing the positives of diversity in ads lacked credibility because of the impact of social desirability bias.

Working with Brainsights, a Toronto-based neuroscience company, they uncovered some of Canadian consumers’ true feelings around diversity in commercials, thus moving beyond survey-based research, in which people frequently answer questions based on how they would like to, or feel they should, be perceived.

At a time when diversity is an industry priority, brands that are serious about it may need to adopt a similar neuro-based approach.