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Crowdtap's Quest To Measure Brand Influence In The Age Of Social Media

In a new age of advertising, why do we rely on metrics born of an era before Facebook and Twitter? Crowdtap wants to introduce a new metric, "Brand Influence."

Crowdtap, a company that helps brands engage audiences, thinks it has found a better way to measure the success of ad campaigns. Today, the company is issuing a report announcing a new metric, “Brand Influence,” that it claims offers a more accurate measure of a campaign’s success than traditional metrics born before the advent of social media.

At the same time, the Wall Street Journal today reported that ComScore and Nielsen would begin using a metric for Facebook ads more typically used in offline campaigns, a metric called "gross ratings points."

Why all the fuss over measuring ads? Advertising in any form has always been something of a game of dice. There’s a famous saying attributed to John Wanamaker, the so-called “father of modern advertising”: “I know 50 percent of my advertising is wasted. I just don't know which 50 percent.” Advertisers online or in print often talk about “impressions”--how many pairs of eyeballs an ad is served to--while advertisers in radio and TV use the term “reach.” Acronyms get thrown about: CPI (cost per impression), CPM (cost per thousand impressions), and of course, the Holy Grail of all metrics, ROI (return on investment).

Even though the Internet has offered new streams of ad-related data, a feeling has remained among online marketers that the common metrics are somehow lacking--which explains the news from both Crowdtap and Facebook.

The maneuvers of Facebook and its associates, though, are very different from Crowdtap's gambit. Facebook, ComScore, and Nielsen want to migrate a traditional offline metric online; "gross ratings points," which equal an ad's "reach" times the frequency at which it's seen, are common to TV, print, and outdoor advertising. In the opinion of Crowdtap CEO Brandon Evans, though, the news about new Facebook metrics is actually "a move backwards." Reach, impressions, gross ratings points- these are measures of quantity, he says, but not quality. Sure, a TV spot might reach a million households. But were they paying attention, or taking the dog out until their episode of CSI: Miami came back on? Sure, your ad was served on a half million Facebook web pages. But what fraction of the audience really took note? Sometimes impressions don’t make much of an impression.

Conversely, things that might be counted as a single impression might actually carry a lot of weight, in reality. Take a brand-sponsored college house party, for instance. Maybe just 100 people came, but what if those people are the proverbial big men (and women) on campus? And what if they have thousands of Twitter followers who hang on their every word? And doesn’t it count for something that they were exposed to the brand in question over a two-hour party, instead of a few seconds spent turning over a page of a magazine?

Crowdtap thought there must be a better way to measure all of this, so Evans hired Joanna Seddon, a marketing expert, to conduct a study to figure out what that better way might be. In the end, Seddon and Evans settled on a notion called “Brand Influence,” which takes into account not only quantitative factors like exposure and reach, but also qualitative measures like “intensity” (“How involved is the audience in the message?”) and “proximity” (“How close and trusted is the source?”). The result, hope Evans and Seddon, is a new metric that speaks to an era of advertising where there are a proliferation of new channels, many of which remain something of a Wild West when it comes to measuring return-on-investment. (See, for example, Farhad Manjoo’s recent story in the magazine about what he calls “the I Love Lucy era of social-media marketing, a golden age of unaccountability.”)

Since Seddon and Evans used Crowdtap itself as the platform to conduct their research, it behooves us to learn a bit about how the site itself works. If you can only learn through narrated cartoons, this video will get you started:

Basically, Crowdtap lets brands and consumers join their site, and it facilitates communication between the two parties. It offers three types of research interactions: Brands can poll users, crowdsource ideas, and hold online moderated panels. And it offers three types of marketing actions: Brands can share web content, issue samples through Crowdtap, or use it to recruit hosts to throw house parties. For brands, the benefits are obvious; for consumers, a gamification element--leveling up, earning awards, and so forth--make it worth their while. Some 150,000 “Crowdtappers” are currently signed up; some have said of the site that it’s something like “Farmville meets The Apprentice.” The company appears to be doing something right, at least to investors; it raised $7 million in Series A funding last week.

“Crowdtap was a great match” for the research, says Evans, admitting that “obviously I'm slightly biased.” Which raises the question: Is Crowdtap’s report a work of science, or a work of its own clever marketing? After all, the report was hardly funded by the National Science Foundation, or even an advertising trade association.

When asked a variation on this question, Seddon said, “I would say it's a work of science.... Every single point is based on quantitative research and data.” The report conveniently reached the conclusion that certain actions that Crowdtap can help facilitate through its network--distributing samples, or throwing one of those branded parties at the homes of its top influencers, say--are severely undervalued by traditional metrics. Here, a representative chart from the report shows how the Brand Influence numbers associated with activities Crowdtap can facilitate are orders of magnitude higher than those it has less to do with.

Evans, for his part, says he would mostly consider this report a success if it changed the conversation around marketing metrics. “There’s nothing proprietary here,” he says, and he’d be very happy if a possible competitor--from Nielsen to Klout--began adopting the metric tomorrow. “Our goal is to put all the information out there, to speak at conferences,” and hopefully to convince some trade organizations to climb on board.

It's a Quixotic hope, to say the least: What if Nike tomorrow decided the basic American unit of distance measurement would henceforth be the Air Jordan, rather than the foot? Still, claims Evans: "This could benefit the overall industry...We think it’s the direction that marketing needs to move.” The assumption, of course, is that if the whole of Madison Avenue's tide shifts towards social, that Crowdtap’s boat only stands to rise. “Why Brendan isn’t worried” about competitors using his metric, says Seddon, “is that Crowdtap is better equipped to measure influence in social marketing than anybody else.”

Just because Crowdtap’s report is self-serving doesn’t mean it isn’t also right. There is a growing feeling in the advertising world that social campaigns are important, but poorly understood. Evans and Seddon, to their credit, have tried to begin to put a number on things. Based on four case studies in the report, they conclude that taking actions that earn 1,000 of these newfangled “Brand Influence points” will result in an ROI of $2,828. (Adds Evans, “this gives a good approximation but certainly as we study more case studies, the numbers will become more concrete.”) Their paper hasn’t been peer-reviewed, or replicated across other networks, but at least they’ve made an assertion that others can test. It’s a start towards bringing that I Love Lucy era of unaccountability to a close.

[Image: Flickr user x-ray delta one]

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