Research by Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) reveals new insights into how different online formats (eg online display advertising, email marketing, affiliate websites and paid-for and natural search) have very distinct roles in how they contribute to a successful customer conversion journey.

Tim Elkington, head of research at the IAB, said: “A customer seeing a display ad at the start of a purchase process is not necessarily prompted to buy as a result of that ad; our research reveals that a combination of online formats ultimately lead to a conversation.

“A display ad may fuel a customer journey, but the conversion may actually come from elsewhere, for example a natural search link or affiliate website. Understanding this process and the interplay between formats will enable marketers to create more successful online campaigns.”

The study examines the nature of the online customer journey and considers the impact various digital communications have on consumer behavior, highlighting ways in which brands can make their communications work together to forge a consistent, effective online experience.

Research was conducted among major travel brands bmi, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, but its results are intended to provide a digital marketing benchmark for brands in any sector.

Integration Works: The research found that consumers are more likely to purchase when exposed to a variety of online advertising such as search, online display and email marketing. Such tools have a branding effect that supports offline activity, enhancing brand awareness across all platforms.

For one of the brands studied, 78% of users that made a purchase had been exposed to online marketing activity. However, results also show that up to 46% of those that see an online ad, and visit the site within a week of seeing it, have not been exposed to any other online marketing activities (search, affiliates, email etc), suggesting that online display advertising has a positive, branding effect as well.

Take Away Points

  • Online activity is working. Individuals who make purchases on websites are more likely to have been exposed to a variety of online advertising formats.
  • The study found that click-through metrics may no longer be the best way to assess the impact of display advertising. Click-through metrics call for immediate action, while the customer journeys analysed took on average a few days, from initial exposure to purchase.
  • It’s time to start thinking about online display advertising in an new way, the traditional way of assessing online display advertising – the click through rate – isn’t an adequate way of expressing how effective it is
  • Different online elements work together, playing different roles at different stages of the journey – for example display advertising at the start of the journey to raise awareness of brands and their products and affiliates to drive the sale at the end of the journey. It’s not only the final click in the journey that matters
  • It’s unrealistic to always expect people to act as soon as they have seen an ad (this doesn’t happen for TV ads), so it’s important to consider the actions of those that see an online ad and then act at some later stage.
  • The customer conversion journey is not a simple linear path. Users are exposed to lots of different online elements in their journey to becoming customers and come into contact with multiple campaign elements on multiple occasions – up to nine display ads, three organic click-throughs, two sponsored click-throughs and two emails over a period of up to seven days to make their first purchase. 

Elena Ragone, online acquisition manager for bmi said: "It's reassuring to have independent confirmation around something bmi has been considering for some time - by defining success based on a mix of visitation, engagement and search behaviour you can look beyond simplistic denominators such as click-through and last event attribution.

"This research highlights that consumer behaviour proxies are better placed to reflect communication goals rather than just clicks."

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