Attention: the New Currency

Why doesn’t contemporary advertising work better? It’s not for lack of data. Even people in the advertising business are often surprised by how much is known about consumer buying patterns, both individual and in the aggregate.

Much of that information has been generated by marketers, who have been collecting information from and about customers since the last century. From the early days of General Mills’ “send in a boxtop and $.25 for your Magic Ring” campaigns major brands have sought to gather information about customers.  When my mom sent in the quarter and the boxtop so I could get my ring, the company had my address. Privacy standards were different in the middle of the last century, so I imagine my mom got some coupons in the mail, and not even a phone call. My phone number could have been found out from a telephone directory, but in the fities a cereal company wouldn’t dream of calling.

The problem isn’t the data. The problem is getting the consumer’s attention. Marketers have every single piece of data they need about customers to target campaigns.  They’re also swimming in campaign metrics. How many clicks, how many impressions, how many people drive by a given billboard on a single day. But we’ve got a different problem: how do we judge exactly which touch points in a marketing campaign, or in the media mix, caused the consumer to make a purchase? This is still the Holy Grail of Marketing.

Today’s consumers are exposed to an expanding, fragmented array of marketing touch points across media and sales channels. Imagine that while viewing a TV spot for a Toyota Camry, a consumer uses her mobile device to Google “sedans.” Up pops a paid search link for Camry, as well as car reviews. She clicks through to Car and Driver’s website to read some reviews, and while perusing, she notices a display ad from a local dealership but doesn’t click on it. One review contains a link to YouTube videos people have made about their Camrys. On YouTube she also watches Toyota’s clever “Camry Reinvented” Super Bowl ad from eight months earlier. During her commute to work that week she sees a Toyota billboard she hadn’t noticed before and then receives a direct-mail piece from the company offering a time-limited deal. She visits local dealerships’ websites, including those promoted on Car and Driver and in the direct-mail piece, and at last heads to a dealer, where she test-drives the car and buys it.

Toyota’s chief marketing officer should ask two questions: How did this combination of ad exposures interact to influence this consumer? Is Toyota investing the right amounts at the right points in the customer-decision journey to spark her to action?

The challenge is not data. It is attribution. Which campaign built the initial interest? And which campaign tipped the consumer over the edge to convince her to do the test drive and to buy?  Attribution and media mix is a complex challenge.