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DoubleClick is set to release the first European version of its annual Touchpoints study, which looks at the main influences behind consumers' purchasing behaviour online.

So we spoke to the company's director of research and industry relations Rick E. Bruner for a sneak preview. 

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Can you sum up the main aims and findings of the research?

The main thrust of the research is to understand how consumers come to purchasing decisions online. The way we structured the study was to focus on specific products. The first question was ‘which of the following product types have you made a purchase of in the last twelve months?’

In the three European countries we covered – the UK, France and Germany - we asked about air travel, hotels, rental cars, loans and mortgages, banking services, mobile phone service plans and devices, and automotive. We asked how they first became aware of the product, where they went to find out more about it, and which of those sources of information most influenced their decision to purchase it. We’re about to release the results.

We’ve also delved deeper into the study in the US (already released). We’ve done this study for four years in a row now, and word of mouth has always been a very popular option for how consumers hear or learn about products.

So we’ve also released a paper where we looked at a segment of ‘influencers’, which looks at the implications of word of mouth marketing for advertisers. We looked at how advertisers can impact word of mouth – how do you insert yourself into the chain of person-to-person influence? Some marketers do things like sending beautiful people into a bar with their product to try and create buzz, but that sort of tactic is kind of frowned upon and doesn’t scale.

So we created a set of questions about whether respondents considered themselves to be an expert in a specific subject matter, whether people approached them for advice on products, or whether they blog or are active in social communities and forums. In the US, 17% of the sample met the criteria of being influencers, and we looked at how those people made shopping decisions, as opposed to the rest of the sample.

One of the most interesting findings was that influencers’ favourite place to go to find out more about products was websites, but the second favourite choice was web advertising. 40% of the influencers, versus 31% of non-influencers, cited websites as their first choice for further learning about products. More surprising than that was that 19% of the influencer segment said the place they went to learn more about products was web advertising, versus 8% of the resident sample.

That’s consistent with another overall finding of the survey, which is that a lot of people view web advertising differently to how they view other forms of advertising. They really see web advertising as most important in the 'consideration' part of the purchasing funnel. They pay more attention to advertising in general, and web advertising in particular, when they are already aware of the product and are in shopping mode. That’s partly because the internet is such a research-oriented tool for people and advertising is seen as a part of that.

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How do you go about identifying and targeting these influencers?

These influencers have specific characteristics. They are media junkies. They consume more media of all forms than their non-influencer counterparts, and especially the internet.

We also asked a series of attitudinal questions about how people react to ads and value or dislike ads, and the influencers were by and large more accepting of advertising and more savvy about it. They were more likely to use tools to avoid or control advertising intake, such as digital video recorders or pop-up blockers, but at the same time they were more likely to take note of ads. They are paying attention to advertising in a critical way, more so than other people.

We also asked about usage of emerging media – things like video on the internet, RSS, podcasting, blogs and online games – and across the board, these influencers were significantly more engaged with these types of platforms.

So emerging media is particularly concentrated with these people, and internet advertising is something they cite as a real source of influence in their purchasing decisions. 

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What specific forms of internet advertising do they mean?

The choice was web advertising, and then there was a separate choice of search engines. When people picked either, we followed up for clarification, and for web advertising, the most popular choice was image-based ads. For search engines, the most popular was organic listings, although there is research that shows people don’t tend to distinguish between paid and organic. So I would say that in most cases they were talking about display advertising.

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What differences did you find between the behaviour of consumers in the US and Europe?

One thing was the question about what most influenced consumers’ decision to purchase a product - there were some striking differences between the four countries.

For the UK and US, websites were the top choice. For all four countries, word of mouth was the first or second choice, and it was the first choice in particular in Germany. In Germany and France, salespeople were also very important. In France, they were the top choice by some distance, and in Germany they were the second choice. Another thing is that more people in Germany cited web advertising as the biggest influence rather than websites.

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How did you separate websites from web advertising in the survey?

They were two different forms of influence. If people said websites, we asked them which type of website they were talking about, and principally they were talking about the manufacturer’s own website. We gave them more than ten different types, including professional review sites, price comparison sites, blogs and portals.

I had expected to see the comparison sites being ranked very highly - they were the second, third or fourth choices - but a significant number of people were citing the actual producer of the good or service. It was an interesting finding that consumers aren’t that cynical of marketers to discount them as a source of information.

In the attitudinal questions, we also found that people aren’t as cynical about advertising as you might imagine.

A number had positive attitudes, such as being grateful for the role advertising plays in subsidising the costs of the media. The number that agreed with that statement was 50% or more in each of the countries – it was as high as 58% in France. For the statement ‘I dislike all forms of advertising’, the highest was Germany with 21%. The French had 14% and the UK 18%, the same as the US figure. Only one in five feel really strongly that they dislike advertising. 

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We saw that the US study showed quite a high level of view throughs from consumers rather than click throughs. Are you doing any further research into post impression activity?

There’s a basic reporting function in DART for post impression conversions or view throughs. When someone is exposed to an ad, we drop a cookie and we can see if they have not clicked but shown up at the website at a later time, and we attribute that to a view through. That’s the correlation of the exposure and later visitation.

Some advertisers question whether the ad exposure deserves credit for the visitation – they may never have looked at the ad but maybe there was a TV ad or something else that persuaded them to come to the website.

What we have done as a public study, and I’m in the process of recreating it for a number of clients, is to create two specific audience segments. Segment A are shown a different ad to the ad we are testing, and Segment B are shown the test ad. We then look at the activity of the two segments and expect to see a higher proportion of the test ad segment visiting and converting. It’s important to traffic those ads identically, so they both have an equal opportunity to visit and convert. The difference between the two should be attributed to the ad lift.

We have clients who do that kind of control qualification on their own, but we are also in the process of doing a drive for a number of new clients to participate in that kind of research.

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What about measuring exposure across multiple online channels?

I think it’s fair to say we’re doing that now with some clients in a kind of testing mode, but we are rolling it out as a feature to allow you to measure exposure to different types of ad within a campaign, including search.

You can’t measure exposure to a search ad, but if someone was to click on a paid or organic search link and land on an advertiser’s site, we can then match that to all the activity and all the ad exposures they have seen. That’s a feature we are rolling out in the coming months.

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Did you manage to glean any interesting data about online video advertising, and which formats will work best with consumers?

We gave the consumers a list of emerging media types and internet video was the one most people were engaging with today.

It’s extremely popular in the internet advertising world, however both content and especially video ad formats online are still relatively new. The industry is still digesting standards and the metrics that need to be reported. There’s a lot of discussion about the optimal length of video clips, bearing in mind there are two ways video ads are typically served today – in-stream, where the ad is embedded within a video clip, and on-page.

Those two will evolve a bit differently. You can get higher CPM prices for the in-stream video ads because there is a more limited supply of inventory – there are lots of web pages out there but fewer video streams. But there is no doubt that if you look at YouTube and what all the TV stations in US and Europe are doing in terms of pushing their content into online formats, you will continue see a big wave of video activity over the next several years.

It’s a little bit early to tell how those questions will shake out, but I’m confident there will be substantial growth in online video.

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Published 24 April, 2007 by Richard Maven

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