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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Why brand lift is the advertising industry’s most misunderstood and underutilized metric – and why it should reign supreme

July 15, 2019 | By Jamie Auslander, SVP Research & Analytics—true[X] @trueX

Marketers, I want to ask you a not-so-hypothetical question: How do you decide whether one of your digital brand advertising campaigns was successful? Here are a couple of things that I’m guessing might instantly come to mind:

  • We drove X dollars in attributable sales.
  • We achieved X number of viewable impressions.
  • X people clicked on our ads.

But does this really mean your ad was as successful as it could be? None of these metrics, not even sales, have much to say about the long-term perception of your brand. Clicks and views, for example, are proxies for attention. They don’t tell you about how your creative actually impacted a consumer.

Plus, brand marketing is about more than a direct sale. You’re investing your budget – in some cases, a considerable budget – into building long-term perceptions of your company and what it can bring to consumers. Not every consumer is going to turn into a customer upon seeing an ad, considering not every consumer is constantly in-market for a product. That doesn’t mean the ad doesn’t have value. At it doesn’t mean that they can’t be converted to a customer somewhere down the road.

Brand lift

The metric that matters is brand lift. Brand lift is what tells you if a consumer came any closer to becoming a customer – in short, if your ad worked. And in the pre-digital days, it was celebrated as the industry gold standard for determining ad effectiveness.

But today, easier-to-collect acquisition metrics like conversions and behavioral metrics like clicks are much more actively being pursued by brands and their agencies. And this is a problem, because it means our standards aren’t as high as they could be. If the objective of brand advertising is to generate attention, inform, persuade and drive intent, why is the industry moving away from brand lift towards measuring for outcomes?

Accurate vs. actionable

The answer to the question of why brand lift fell from favor is a pretty easy one. Pre-digital, while brand lift measurement was accurate, it wasn’t actionable. Marketers typically had to wait until a campaign had wrapped before brand lift could be measured, which meant they had no way to potentially optimize their strategy or change course while the campaign was actually running because they didn’t have a statistically stable projection. Further, brand lift reporting should really illustrate how well consumers are moving down the purchase funnel, from brand awareness through to brand intent and virtually none do this well.

Measuring brand lift has also historically been expensive and complicated. The methodology isn’t an ad tech creation. It is a scientific method. It requires taking two random sets of survey observations, one from a “clean” control audience and one from a test or ad-exposed group, both from within a campaign’s targeted audience.

Measuring brand lift requires complex sampling to ensure randomization and representation, survey instrument development, rendering questionnaires online, generating responses, estimating for biases, data cleaning, sample weighting and statistical testing to name some of the efforts required.

Difficult but effective

As a result, brand lift is difficult to deploy and potentially much more so than coding for an online click-based behavior such as registering a sale or logging a site visit. And there were even more variables: Methodologically, who are these people who participate in paid, panel-based studies and are these respondents truly representative of the consumer base exposed to the ad? Most brand lift studies, rarely, if ever, provide enough data for stable and sliceable analyses. 

However, brand lift measurement works. And you can’t game it. Clicks, sign-ups, and other digital-first metrics are all subject to skews related to the type of media. Even worse, they are sitting ducks for fraud and bad actors. Brand lift is a fundamentally human metric. And bringing it back to front-and-center is just a small part of what we as an industry need to do as we refocus on the fact that humans, not machines, are at the heart of brand storytelling. 

So, what do we do? In short, we’ve got a ton of new digital tools available to us that make brand lift measurement affordable, scalable, and actionable in real time. We’re not using them at an industrywide level. And we should be.

Give brand lift a lift

To give brand lift new relevance in the digital age, the industry should explore gauging brand sentiment with innovative surveys that are far more streamlined than we’re accustomed to. Incorporating consistency and even questionnaire standards could develop real benchmarks as well as ensure brand lift is an “honest” metric that can’t fall into the shady math situation that characterizes so many other digital analytics practices.

These surveys can be structured using a single question, keeping the experience lightweight for consumers. This is important because it broadens the base of consumers who can be surveyed. No longer are you limited to paid participants or to people who are willing to sit through multiple questions.

And perhaps most importantly, collecting large samples as a campaign is still running has the potential to shift the collection brand lift data from after the campaign ends to real-time – producing truly actionable insights. If something isn’t working, you can adjust your creative or targeting.

A consumer in your target demographic might not be ready to buy your product. That’s fine. However, the metrics we’ve been using in digital are both giving us an exaggerated sense of urgency – because they can’t measure anything more than a direct conversion – and keeping our standards low. It’s time to bring brand lift back to front-and-center, because finally, we’re ready for this tried-and-true metric to reach its full potential.

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