It’s Time We Had ‘The Talk’ - Digital Ad Metrics and the Lack of Transparency

There is an elephant in the room – his name is Harry and he likes to eat cake – now that we’ve addressed that I want to talk to you about the problem with the online advertising industry.

Digital advertising is booming globally – it’s now a $117 billion industry (AudienceScience, 2013) and the momentum is continuing as online video and mobile attract wider audiences. But while advertising budgets shift to online, brands and advertisers grapple with how to track performance. There is a lack of transparency when it comes to understanding how that investment in digital translates to sales and brand awareness.  How do advertisers know how their digital campaigns are performing?

Measuring the ROI of digital advertising campaigns is no longer as simple as logging into an analytics account and adding up clicks. There’s so much more to think about when it comes to audience engagement statistics, reach, purchases and purchase intent – or, if we’re kicking it old school - ‘leads’.

Is the advertiser’s campaign goal to increase sales and track purchase journeys or, is it brand awareness – it could be a combination but without a clear campaign goal in mind you’re never going to truly realize the return on the investment, or strategize against curtailing profits.

Even when your campaign goal is in place and the hard work has been done to give it the best chance of succeeding, there are still hurdles in the way when it comes realizing at what point that success occurs.


The methods for measuring ad impressions and ad performance are not transparent, nor are they consistent. Something as simple as an impression can cause all matter of confusion because some reporting will count impressions below the fold even if a user hasn’t seen them (which is just one of the ‘viewability’ issues) and some won’t. A true reflection of ad impressions is difficult to account.

Auto-play video impressions are very difficult to measure and while some publishers may like the format, others loathe them, so there’s also the issue of where those ad units might appear. Are we talking premium content? Or is your ad being placed as a filler across remnant inventory?

There is also the issue of how much money is actually going into the campaign. Programmatic has experienced popularity because it delivers efficiently at scale. There are however, many middle men involved in the process, all taking some kind of cut from your campaign budget. Do you know where your money is going? Are you distributing it where it’s needed most?


Video advertising in particular allows advertisers to reach highly engaged audiences and with more people watching video on their mobile devices, it’s grown exponentially. However, the technology is still lagging from a publisher content perspective with many players built outside standard parameters, meaning some ad units may not be delivered.

On the flip side of that, there are issues with some creative that doesn’t adhere to IAB standards and therefore doesn’t fit within a player, or if it’s rich media, it may not behave the way it should.

If an ad is requested by a publisher but that publisher’s URL is broken or incorrectly encoded, then the ad request cannot be fulfilled. This is a common occurrence and one that is difficult to overcome without the use of emerging technologies. We are somewhat limited by current technology but it's technology that is changing and improving everyday. The technology we have is also able to make digital advertising more effective and better for audiences, if deployed correctly, and if infrastructure is in place to enable it.

Shhhh - it happens

That’s right, I said it! Sometimes things just happen, go wrong, trail off, fail. Human error will always be a factor in any campaign, online or otherwise. The margin for error can be reduced but it’s unrealistic to presume that errors won’t or aren’t occurring.

Human error happens all the time but it’s not often accounted for in reports and it’s rarely spoken about unless you’re a technology platform trying to overcome it.

There are so many companies and networks that make up this digital environment - take a look at this video lumascape for a good overview of the online video industry ecosystem. 

Minimize wastage by being accountable for campaigns and asking for accountability from agencies and ad networks. It’s an exciting time in the digital ad space and it’s important to remember that we are still in a stage of evolution of which everyone needs to contribute. When we combine specific skill sets from different areas of this space, we really begin to solve problems and see the true potential of digital.

Count the pennies

With digital advertising, especially online video and mobile offering a new level of opportunity for advertisers to both engage with audiences, and reach them wherever they are, getting your campaigns right is worth the investment. Measuring ROI is important for advertisers, it’s also a great indicator of where the industry is, so we need to find better ways of achieving a consistent methodology that can be applied across platforms.

Impressions, clicks, purchases, shares or other interactions are all positive campaign outcomes, but which is the desired outcome of your campaign? What actions do you want to the user to have in order for you to consider it worth the investment? These are all questions that need consideration and practical application of tools and methodologies.

Accepted industry wide standards need to be communicated and consistently upheld. There will always be a percentage of ROI that cannot be accurately attributed but we can minimize that percentage but implementing standards of compliance.

Digital advertising across platforms is exciting, engaging and profitable, so next time you pull a report on campaign performance, read between the lines, and affect the most efficient change.