Is it Premature to say Goodbye to Offline Ad Spend?

Advertising has always been a game of capturing human attention. A fascinating book in this area is, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get inside Our Heads’, by Tim Wu.Attention Merchants

Wu tells the story of how advertisers and programmers came to seize control of our eyes and minds. He has done a great job of tracking the story of a changing group of people, who have sought to harvest the attention of public and then sell that attention to a multitude clients, mostly advertisers of one kind or another. The overall story isn’t new: there have been many fine histories of advertising over the years, and of its effect on culture and consumers. But Wu adds to the narrative by focusing much of his argument on the modern avatar of the attention merchants, no longer just newspaper publishers or admen or broadcast powers but the ones who run the massively popular websites such as Facebook and Google etc.
Digital Marketing spends have been growing rapidly in the last decade, that is eating away the share of spend on offline channels like Print Media, Billboards etc. The growing ad spends in digital marketing space is primarily attributed to significant amount of human attention now being devoted to digital devices where the content is controlled by new age media-moguls such as Google, Facebook and Amazon. Yes even Amazon, who we normally think of as The Everything Store, is expected to clock  USD 5 Billion in ad revenue by 2018.   Facebook and Google are predicted to make $106 billion from advertising in 2017, almost half of world’s digital ad spend. Together, that equates to a 46.4 % share of advertisers’ total global digital ad spend. (Refer my earlier blog post on Data Driven Attribution that shows an illustration on changing composition of ad spends across various media formats).

Virtual Reality: Possibly the Next Big thing in Advertising

The fight for human attention does not stop here. Next radical shift of advertising budgets will be towards Virtual reality (VR). VR is already a big business. It is estimated that the VR market will be worth $5.2bn by 2018 – but over the next few years it will become the business, simply because the experience is unparalleled, taking the user into another mind-blowing world that feels real. In the Virtual Reality lingo, the term that is used to describe this is immersive experience. How will brands use it? Content and advertising will become so interlinked we won’t know which is which. People will “step into” brand experiences and ads will be filmed with 360-degree cameras. Marketers will sponsor rides at theme parks, vacations in exotic locations and then bring them into your home via Oculus Rift so you can enjoy them in your living room, at no cost. This is just one step in the new emotional journey that brands and consumers are about to embark upon.

While I totally acknowledge and appreciate this radical shift towards Digital Advertisements, I have a slightly different take on this- and this is centred around Measurement and Accountability.  Referring to old adage:  What gets measured gets monitored. So, how easy is it to measure Offline Marketing ROI vis-à-vis the Digital Ad spends? And is this impacting the decision to go Digital?

The Measurement Challenge

Any online transaction ab-initio leaves a digital trail and we have enough and more data collectors and spy bots to scrape and store the same.  In my last post I spoke about how even with this data, there is a growing market for refining and analysing it further to establish attribution. Contrast this with offline media, where all you know for sure is that you paid for an ad that was printed. Who saw, what the impact, if any was, are questions for which an answer calls for further investment in surveys etc.  Measuring offline media, especially print and outdoor channels impact still remains a challenge. Some of the popular techniques to quantify the impact of offline ad spend are:

  • Put a coupon in your print ads and have consumers bring the coupon into your store for a discount, and count how many people bring in the coupon.
  • Track website visits from offline campaigns using vanity URLS/campaign-specific URL. Instead of sending users to the website’s homepage, create a URL specific to the campaign and publication.
  • Track phone leads from Billboard and print ads. One can add special tracking number purchased from a call tracking solution provider, to Billboard and Print ads so that whenever someone calls that number, you would know that the lead has come from Billboard or print advertisements.
  • Consumer Survey to find from the customer what led to the purchase. You can have your store employees ask each customer who comes into the store “How did you hear about us?” and then calculate how many of them say “from your magazine/newspaper ad.”

Yes, these are all difficult and take effort. At best what you get is a ballpark or imprecise answer.  But just because the answer is difficult to obtain does not mean these channels do not deliver value. This leads me to believe that some of the shift in ad spend to digital media may have been because it was easier to measure the ROI and not necessarily because it delivers greater bang for the buck.


In summary, measuring offline advertising media impact is time-consuming, expensive and possibly imprecise. Will it bias a marketing person to skew his marketing efforts towards digital just because he is not able to measure offline media? Probably yes, and that is the concern. Just because the ROI of offline channels cannot be measured, they cannot be abandoned. I would like to end this blog post with by quoting John Tukey here again- An approximate answer to the right question is worth a great deal more than a precise answer to the wrong question’

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