How ad testing must evolve to meet the challenges of agile marketing

By Daren Poole

The rise of agile marketing will demand increasingly fast-paced creative development and execution. Researchers will be expected to provide advertisers with insight that allows them to make almost instant decisions to capitalise on opportunities to sway a consumer’s purchasing behaviour.

Ad testing will have to do some really heavy lifting. Developments in programmatic technology will multiply the amount of content that needs to be tested, while the need to develop impactful creative will increase as consumers develop their ability to ‘screen out’ ads.

Increased speed and capacity alone won’t be enough; advertisers will also need to know whether the core creative idea works, to be able to confidently ‘flex’ it across different channels and executions.

Moving the creative process forward

To evolve the level of pace required for on-the fly optimisation, and allow testing to be carried out close to execution, research will become more streamlined – with a sharp focus on getting fast, evaluative indications of an ad’s performance in market.

Questions that establish whether an ad will engage, deliver the intended brand associations and build brand predisposition will provide enough insight to choose the right ad from a set, for example. Automated tools currently exist that provide results within six hours, but we’re expecting a one-hour turnaround to be the norm.

Most current pre-testing is too slow for digital. Millward Brown studies comparing exposed to non-exposed respondents of various campaigns demonstrate digital’s potential to drive key brand metrics such as message association and brand favourability. A third of digital campaigns have no effect or a negative effect on the brand, however, highlighting the need for fast, cost-effective feedback.

Research tools have already developed the capability to quickly put ads into the context of Facebook and YouTube, for instance. These use behavioural metrics (did the viewer click, skip, watch to the end or interact?) to complement traditional survey measures and emerging neuroscience techniques – such as facial coding – that establish cut through, awareness and brand perceptions.

In the programmatic environment, testing will be critical to ensure that the ad shown is meaningful and useful to the viewer – complementing the context in which it appears, and engaging the consumer with the customisation, rather than spooking them. The next generation of tools will most likely harness some of the principles of programmatic to mirror the ‘tailored’ experience the audience would get; serving different content to respondents based on their behaviour and demographics while they’re in the survey.

Plan to be spontaneous

Agile adapting of content will only be possible if executions are based on a campaign platform that brings the brand’s purpose – what makes it meaningfully different – to life.

For this reason, gaining consumer feedback earlier in the creative development process should be part of an agile approach, to evaluate an ad’s strengths and weaknesses and then establish what works in different contexts, the media placements it best lends itself to, and how to get a better return – for example positioning it differently in a new market.

Once advertisers have learned what works for the brand, they can make frequent, iterative, customer-centric actions that speed up both innovation and return on investment.

To understand what will drive purchase decisions and build the brand, advertisers must find out how an ad makes the audience think and feel – and therefore the likely impact on brand perceptions and associations. A combination of passive and active research techniques should be used to watch behaviour, and also explore both emotional and stated responses.

The research industry has to find ways to consistently and affordably integrate direct questioning and neuroscience measurement into testing solutions, to capture both considered and instinctive responses, with results delivered ‘moment by moment’ to give the brand the full picture.

Start with the brand

All communications, however tactical, must ultimately serve to grow the brand. Firing off individual pieces of creative in different directions will lead to disconnect, and confusion about what the brand stands for.

That’s why an effective agile approach requires a third level of testing: full in-depth qualitative research that evaluates the strength of the broader creative idea at the core of the campaign, and its ability to deliver against brand objectives.

This is what will knit all the executions, across all the channels, together. If advertisers understand the creative idea, and it perfectly mirrors the brand values and purpose, then everything they build around it – the campaign as a whole, and its individual elements – will be meaningful, persuasive and impactful, and work as one to amplify the brand story.

The role of research in optimising creative to seize short-term opportunities must be balanced with the need to drive sustainable, long-term brand impact and growth. It’s all about the endgame – not the latest techniques or technology. Everything must come back to the brand, or the potential of agile marketing will never be realised.

Daren Poole is Global Brand Director – Creative Development for Millward Brown.