According to eMarketer, half the digital advertising spending this year will be on mobile, a total of US$29 billion.
Advertisers want to know if their messages are reaching the right target groups of people at the right time so that ad dollars are not wasted. Some people are better targets than others for messages about, say, infant car seats, or trips to Mexico, or eye makeup, or Hummers.
It is not a simple matter to measure Internet traffic, whether on the web or on mobile apps. But metrics matter to advertisers, who use them to determine the amount they are willing to pay for having their messages in a digital publication.
Advertisers want to know not only the size of the audience, but its characteristics --income, location, interests, spending habits, hobbies and more.
But for technical reasons, it is difficult to track a single user across all the devices they may use at home, at work or on the go -- smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop. Cookies, those bits of information placed on your browser when you visit a web site, are great for tracking people and giving hints about what they are searching for and are interested in, but not when they move into the world of mobile devices and applications. (The technical reasons are explained in a TechCrunch article by Chris Maddern.)
The whole sales process
Ideally, marketers want to track the effect of their messages at various points in the sales process: when potential customers show awareness (clicking on on ad), show a need (via search), when they ask for recommendations (on a social network), when they shop around (in a search engine or social network), when they look for a provider nearby (location-based social recommendation), when they buy (an offline link to their credit card information), and when they comment online about their satisfaction or lack thereof (social network).
This tracking information can tell a marketer where the ad spending will have the most impact. But with the available technology, it is difficult to track a client's behavior through the whole cycle. The article in eMarketer quotes research showing that only 5 percent of marketers worldwide "had a seamless integration of customer touchpoints across channels that allowed for exploitation of opportunities."
In other words, as with the famous story of the bewildered department store executive who was spending lavishly on newspaper advertising, they may suspect that half of their advertising is wasted, but they don't know which half.
Facebook's new Atlas Solutions service for advertisers promises to solve that problem by tracking an individual user across multiple devices (if they use the service on all their devices) and linking the client's own credit card sales records to their web behavior.
A related problem is not just the quality of the mobile audience but the quantity. Just how big is a website's audience, and is one user being counted multiple times on different devices? Marketers don't always believe the numbers. An analysis by Christopher Zara in the International Business Times captures the essence of what I have been reading lately in the trade press:
"...[T]he only consensus in online analytics is that none of the major firms -- whether it’s comScore, Nielsen, Quantcast or Google -- measure online audiences particularly well."
The issue is that publishers think these measurement firms undercount unique users while advertisers think they may overcount by reporting a single user multiple times for each different device used.
Metrics and audience size also figure in company valuations. Zach Kaplan, vice president of the private equity firm General Atlantic, which has invested $46.5 million in Vox, told Fortune magazine that he was not concerned that comScore reported half the traffic that Vox itself did.
Kaplan was quoted as saying: “We’re very comfortable with the internal metrics… I don’t want to be harsh, but comScore is increasingly a statistic that doesn’t matter because of what it misses in terms of mobile and global. Advertisers and buyers still use it, but from a due diligence perspective, we care more about the internal Google Analytics and Quantcast figures.”
Attention web, viewability, blockers, bots
Ad Age took an in-depth look at the problem of Internet metrics and reported that The Financial Times has tested a different way to calculate its advertising rates: the cost per hour that a particular target audience group is viewing content or an ad.
Many publishers and advertisers are turning to "the attention web" touted by Chartbeat as the desired metric. Attention is measured by whether a user scrolls down a page, time spent on a page, action taken (referral, recommendation, "like"), clicks, and "advertising viewability."
(The Internet Advertising Bureaus has established standards for advertising viewability, with the principle that an advertiser should not be charged for a page view when their ad was not visible to a user because it was too low on the page.)
All of these issues make it harder for digital publishers and advertisers to agree on how much advertising is worth. And we have not mentioned ad blockers and bots.
Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab is worried Apple's recent announcement that it will include ad-blocking software on its operating system for mobile devices means tougher times ahead for publishers. Business Insider has also reported that 41 percent of the desired younger audience of millennials, ages 18-35, use ad blocking software and that its use is growing rapidly.
Finally, let's not forget about digital advertising fraud from "non-human traffic" -- bots -- that will pump up the number of page views for an ad on a site. I have seen estimates of anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of the traffic on some web pages is driven by bots.
Nobody said it was easy being a digital media publisher. In the continuing thrust and parry, the only way to respond is to innovate constantly.
James Breiner is a former ICFJ Knight Fellow who launched and directed the Center for Digital Journalism at the University of Guadalajara. Visit his websites News Entrepreneurs and Periodismo Emprendedor en Iberoamérica.
Image CC-licensed on Flickr via Maurizio Pesce