Display Marketing ROI: The Placebo Experiment, Part 2

In Display Marketing ROI – The Placebo Experiment Part 1, I raised the question: how can one determine the value that display advertising has in regards to unique visitor traffic to your site?

When faced with the question – 40% of your site’s unique visitors were at some point exposed to your display ad in the last month – how can you prove that display was the catalyzer of that 40%? I figured the best way to determine the influence display had on unique visitor traffic would be best determined by running a placebo ad experiment. Here is what we know:

  • Site traffic rises when we run a display campaign
  • We know that 40% of our unique visitors this month have been exposed to our display campaign in the last 30 days
  • We know that 5% of the 40% of unique visitor traffic clicks thru the display ad and contributes to the overall unique traffic %

What we don’t know:

  • Beyond that 5% – are the users actually influenced by the display ad or is it just a normative % of unique users given the scale of our display campaign?

We can create variations assumptions and hypothesis that stand true to prove that display campaigns aggressively feed our unique visitor population such as unique visits are significantly lower when we don’t run a display ad campaign. But assumptions are not always enough when trying to promulgate the ROI of display advertising to the various stakeholders funding the operation. You want concrete evidence and running a placebo experiment can accomplish this.

What do I mean by Placebo experiment?

Run a blank advertisement. That’s right – pay for a blank display ad to run at a 50/50 split with your branded ads. Tag both ad experiences independently, ensure that the campaigns promote to the same categorically targeted sites and compare the unique visitor data results from each. Adhere to typical testing standards in the digital marketing world and run this for 2-3 weeks before forming a conclusion.

But wait… I don’t want to pay money to run a blank ad! This is the major hurdle to jump over before making this decision. The good news is there is a way to run a “blank ad” that contains creative and provides you with valuable information. Run a market survey display ad and use it as your placebo. The ad can’t contain any brand information or content that could potentially skew the results by indirectly influencing the user to visit “yoursite.com”. But it can contain questions on your industry that your marketing team can use to support best practices and future marketing initiatives. For an automobile company like Ford they could run a survey that asks the question “would you ever buy a car online?”  The results of this survey can be used for other purposes and you didn’t waste your money running blank ads. OR you could choose the CSR route and run an ad for a non-profit organization. As long as the ad contains no association with your brand you can run it.

Perhaps you and/or your stakeholders don’t care about the % of unique traffic that display ads bring in for your business. If that is the case I would argue that you are not getting all the insight you should be from your display efforts but it is what it is. Either way, this same placebo experiment can be applied to any branding campaign your organization runs.

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