Advertising, despite some agency claims to the contrary, has never been an exact science. Surely billions of dollars have been spent tracking media statistics, advertising to sales ratios, demographic buying patterns and the like, but the return on advertising spend -- like economic forecasting -- has been amorphous at best. That's not to say that keeping one's brand top-of-mind and selling-the-sizzle isn't a vital component to product and corporate success, it's just hard as heck to precisely measure hardcore statistical significance.
Craving the numbers has never been more obsessively pursued -- regardless of their predictive validity -- than in these times of new found frugality. So it was no surprise that John Burbank, CEO, Nielsen Online Division announced last December that Nielsen would create "a joint venture with the Catalina Marketing Corporation ...[establishing] a major advancement for marketing ROI as well as a milestone in the evolution of online advertising ... [to] allow Nielsen clients to match online audiences with a representative base of 50 million shoppers from a cross section of retailers from across the country. Not only will advertisers know where their potential customers like to surf, but also they can measure whether exposure to online advertising turns those consumers into actual buyers."
Just nine months later, the WSJ reported that "Nielsen is expected to unveil the new product next week at Advertising Week, and will conduct a test of the service shortly... [and] as with TV ratings, the new service requires the participation of media outlets, in this case Web portals and other sites ... [having] lined up Facebook Inc. as a participant, according to people familiar with the matter." While the data derived from this service will certainly provide needed sales fodder for online publishers, its primary contribution will be to mimic what Nielsen has provided for television advertising for decades: A "Gross Rating Points (GRP) formula that measures the reach and frequency of an ad."
The Journal quotes ZenithOptimedia, a media buying firm owned by Publicis Groupe, claiming, "Last year, marketers spent $52.6 billion on TV ads in the U.S. and $20.3 billion on Internet advertising." Given the potential to extract volumes of data from online viewers -- sans privacy issues -- I suspect we'll see this spend inverted very soon, hard science or not.