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Don't Judge This Ad by Click-Through Rate

We Need to Find New Ways to Measure Online Storytelling

I saw a wonderful commercial recently. It was called “Really?!” and produced by O’Grady Meyer for Gerber, maker of baby cereal, juices and toddler food, among other items. It had everything a TV spot could ask for: It was thought-provoking, it questioned people’s assumptions in a way that was useful for the company brand, and it was the epitome of that all-important “buzz.” But this commercial didn’t appear on TV. It was a video clip on YouTube.

The premise behind “Really?!” is shocking in its simplicity. One simple fact, that the vegetable most consumed by U.S. toddlers is the french fry, makes every parent cringe in precisely the way that will send them running down the healthy-foods aisle, presumably toward Gerber products. Even the classification of the french fry (vegetable or starch?) is being debated across the U.S. on play dates and playgrounds.

Now, my issue with this particular campaign is not the delivery platform but rather the ways in which we evaluate the success or failure of an online advertising campaign. Everything online is measureable, right? You’ve probably heard that 20,000 to 30,000 times in your careers. Precisely because this creative appeared online, its success or failure will be judged on clicks. But what about the reaction of the 99.9% of viewers who didn’t even click to visit the Gerber site? In my mind, this hardly does justice to a promotion as creative and provocative as this one.

Compelling and provocative campaigns such as “Really?!” run the risk of falling between the cracks of quantifiable metrics and subjective buzz. Thousands have viewed the clip, and as of this writing more than 13,000 individuals have responded with their own video “pledges” at the Gerber website. But I’m confident that the number of people talking about this campaign, even if they have not ever seen the clip or created their own video, dwarfs these very respectable metrics.

While it is vitally important to measure engagement, whether through CTR, post-click activity or other methods, it is equally important to realize that everything isn’t always measurable. The best, most-provocative campaigns in history were the ones that were discussed over dinner, at cafes and restaurants, and recalled easily and often. I suspect that if I showed anyone a video of two eggs dropping into a hot skillet from a certain angle with a specific audio track, a specific anti-drug message would pop into their heads.

Let’s not forget that the reason online video holds so much promise is that it’s a combination of the value of both TV advertising and online advertising. Online should indeed deliver micro-targeting, engagement, measurement, interactivity and all, but we should also ensure we maintain the emotive, branding, storytelling power of TV as well.

As the advertising industry continues its slow, steady migration from TV and radio to the web, it’s essential to maintain the critical elements of great commercials: storytelling, branding, emotion. Just because the web lends itself to accountability in a way not possible in other media, we can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater: We can’t hold great branding to purely quantitative standards. Haven’t we all been fooled, at least once, by a banner that tricks us into a response? Is that a success? It’s a mistake to judge every online campaign on the basis of CTR, particularly in this case where years of experience and every instinct I have tells me that the people behind the “Really?!” campaign have a big hit on their hands.

But until the advertising industry is at the point where we can measure a neuron firing a particular way in a specific brain, then it’s time to reconcile to the fact that metrics-driven creative is an insufficient means to measure impact, and that the all-important buzz still defies the statisticians. This means that it is flat-out impossible to measure the impact of one of the most memorable campaigns of the television era through purely quantifiable metrics. And that’s a good thing.

So in the spirit of this article, there’s no call to action here. Don’t click on this link. Don’t forward the article to a friend. Just think about the gap between branding and measurement and how we’re going to reconcile the two. And really, really think about whether a french fry is a vegetable or a starch.

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Suranga Chandratillake is founder and CEO of blinkx, a video-search engine traded on the London Stock Exchange. Prior to founding blinkx in 2004, he held various roles at Autonomy Corp., Morgan Stanley, Netdecisions and Anondesign.