OPINION6 January 2010

How research can capture the ‘true depth’ of digital comms


Online marketing communications are changing, and research needs to change too, writes Tom Woodnutt of Hall & Partners

Robert Bain’s article ‘The click of it’ in the December issue of Research sharply summarises some of the key challenges facing online communications research.

We agree that the research industry has to improve the way it demonstrates the impact of online advertising and brand experiences on brand relationships. By making online more accountable, brands will be able to take bigger risks, create more engaging experiences and forge deeper relationships with people.

In order to make this happen, the research industry needs to embrace change. Here are three areas that need to change:

1. Uniting attitude and behaviour

Research has traditionally focused on what people think. It needs to get better at looking at what people do as well. Brands understandably place more value on tangible behaviour (e.g. buying the product, requesting the brochure or joining the mailing list) than softer attitudinal measures (which are harder to measure and less immediately relevant). This has served the likes of Google well, and in some ways their saying ‘data beat opinion’ is true. However, rather than looking at ‘data’ and ‘opinion’ as competing forces, we believe the two should be viewed from a united perspective. What people say and what people do can be analysed together.

We help clients make better strategic sense of their web analytics data by integrating participant surveys with web analytics platforms. Working with systems like Omniture, we’re able to combine what visitors to a site do with what they think, how they feel, who they are and where they’ve come from.

2. Developing new metrics of brand engagement

We are all familiar with the way online is facilitating ‘new’ types of brand relationship, such as the two-way dynamic of Dell’s Ideastorm community or the participative feel of Nike ID. If research relies on old-world metrics like brand awareness and preference then these deeper types of brand engagement will not be captured and the true depth of digital will be undervalued.

This is why we’ve developed a framework for measuring brand relationships that takes these new metrics into account, incorporating social media sentiment, web behavioural data and more implicit measures of emotion, and asking smarter questions. We believe this will help progressive brands capture the true value of their online (and offline) activity.

3. Thinking more like a brand touchpoint

In certain circumstances research has to be willing to act more like a brand touchpoint rather than always defaulting to the ‘pseudo-science’ mindset. This applies to online brand communities, in which clients are increasingly investing, partly for customer insight. Research needs to stake its claim to setting up and managing these communities (especially when non-research specialists are increasingly doing so and offering ‘insight’ in the process). Online brand communities start to blur the line between what is ‘research’, ‘marketing’, ‘PR’ or ‘CSR’, since the experience of taking part in a community can affect your relationship with a brand. So researchers running the community need to embrace the idea that they are influencing brand relationships.

As another example of this blurring between what research is and what a brand-touchpoint is take surveys of visitors to an online brand experience or users of a brand’s Facebook application. If the survey clearly comes from the brand itself, it can be considered an extension of the brand experience. So if the survey is designed to fit with the creative experience then the former is less likely to detract from the latter. While this is not as ‘scientific’ as a neutrally designed survey, the data is still useful and in many circumstances, the benefits of this approach outweigh the costs.  

If the research industry embraces change and evolves to capture the true depth of digital communications more effectively, brands will be empowered to make bolder, more progressive decisions. In doing so, the true potential of online can be realised and the relevance of research can be both preserved and improved.

1 Comment

14 years ago

Very good and accurately worded article. We are using this model briefly outlined in the article and there is very valuable data and implicit consumer and customer behaviour that will help brands reinvent and reinvigorate themselves - we've 'productised' it into an app called Attain.

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