Super Bowl Ads Offer ROI Measurement Challenges

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Super Bowl commercials largely serve branding purposes, but there is ample opportunity for metrics-focused marketers. While the big game may not offer the same ease in calculating financial-based ROI metrics a direct marketing campaign does, there are measurements marketers can generate that validate the investment.

"The astonishing thing about Super Bowl advertising is that the demand for it keeps going up despite the fact that we are in a world of online marketing and media fragmentation," says Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing within the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. "I think one of the things that is happening is that marketers are better able to measure what they get for a Super Bowl ad." 

Calkins admits it is still difficult to tie sales directly to a Super Bowl commercial, but notes that the ads can be linked to shifts in web traffic, or bumps in friends or likes on Facebook. "All of this now makes it easier for marketers to justify the cost of the spot and the activities around it," he says. "So marketers use other metrics to think about the steps they might use to take a customer from being aware of a brand to a purchase."

These metrics can vary, depending on the purpose of the ad and the marketer's needs. If a new product is getting its first major advertising push during the Super Bowl, a marketer might rely on pre- and post-game brand awareness measurement. Similarly, products facing significant competitive threats could focus on trial metrics among new customers.

One obvious way of measuring a Super Bowl ad's effectiveness is through changes in traffic to designated web sites.

"The way companies are using URLs and online efforts has really changed during the past three to four years," says Calkins. "Companies used to run a Super Bowl ad and put the ULR at the bottom, or near the end. I suspect it did very little for them. Few people in the middle of watching the Super Bowl are going to leap up and put in a web site address," he adds, although the advent of mobile devices and tablets may change that dynamic in years to come.

For Super Bowl Ads, Play Starts Weeks In Advance

These days, companies are much more proactive about what Calkins calls "fostering engagement". And in some cases they're doing so weeks before the commercials air.

"Today, advertisers will largely succeed or fail with their Super Bowl effort before the game even occurs," Calkins says. "The challenge with the game itself is that it is such a cluttered environment. The two weeks leading up to the game become incredibly important for marketers. There's much more time for people to focus on the advertising and the brands."

One brand that has had measurable success in generating pre-game buzz is Doritos, with its pick-your-favorite-user-generated-ad campaign. "The whole 'crash the Super Bowl' program is designed to create interest," Calkins says. "Consumers create ads and upload them. Then they get selected. They have the five top nominees and people can vote for them and look for them. By doing that, they engage people ahead of the game in a very good way."

Real estate company Century 21 has built a campaign around one of its employees who is eagerly anticipating the firm's first Super Bowl spot.

Century 21's online teaser campaign builds anticipation for its actual Super Bowl ad.

"This is very unusual and unexpected, given the state of the real estate market," Calkins says. "But by buying an ad, company leadership is saying 'we believe in the industry and our agents, and we are going to do everything we can to build the company. This is a very powerful message for an organization."

It also doesn't hurt that the real estate market is seen as gaining strength during the coming spring.

"We can track the impact of Super Bowl ads, both positive and negative, in terms of customer response," Calkins says. "By looking at different metrics, it is very possible to put some numbers around what companies are getting. This can be done both through traditional offline surveys as well as online by monitoring what people are saying and the sort of buzz the company has managed to create."

The Ads Get Interactive

Want a number that indicates buzz? How about more than 10 million? That's the number of views a teaser ad – not the game's ad itself – for Volkswagen's 2012 Super Bowl spot has generated on YouTube. Those 10 million views also represent 10 million exposures to an invitation from Volkswagen to click through to its website and create an "intergalactic invite" to a Super Bowl party hosted by the viewer. (The Star Wars theme of the spot carries over from VW's commercial during last year's game, which featured a miniature Darth Vader.

Volkswagen's teaser ad for its Super Bowl spot has generated more than 10 million views a week in advance of the game.

Those invitations, of course, allow Volkswagen to collect email and physical addresses from hosts, although the company promises not to use email addresses for anything other than the invitations. The invitations can be shared via email, Twitter, Facebook or Google+.

That said, not all brand awareness is equal. "One of the challenges with brand awareness is that it can be positive or negative," says Calkins.

Calkins cites a commercial home vacation rental marketer HomeAway.com ran during the 2010 Super Bowl as an example of the latter. "The strategy said, let's compare renting a home to the hassle of staying in a hotel. This strategy made good sense – the company owned the top three sites [for home rentals] on the internet."

But the ad itself, which introduced the service to a wide audience, featured a baby being flung against a plate-glass window. "[Homeaway] ran a spot that was strategically sound but which rubbed people the wrong way," Calkins observes.

HomeAway.com's 2011 "Smushed Baby" ad didn't create the type of brand recognition the company wanted. 

Super Bowl Ad Risks Go Beyond The Dollars

A 30-second spot in this year's Super Bowl carries a $3.5 million sticker price – a figure Calkins advises taking with a grain of salt.

"Buying a Super Bowl ad is like buying a car," he says. "There's a lot of negotiation going on." In most cases, he adds, when a Super Bowl ad is purchased it's part of a larger buy. "That number is a bit squirrely."

Whatever the cost, there is a risk beyond the dollars for the marketer. "You are going up against some of the biggest and most talented marketers in the world," Calkins says. "You have to be committed to delivering great creative and putting together a strong overall effort.

"And you have to ask yourself whether you are okay with the risk profile," Calkins continues. "The Super Bowl is a very risky place to go. It is expensive, but more importantly it is incredibly scrutinized. A Super Bowl ad can spin negative, and actually hurt you in the way an ordinary network spot can't. Very rarely does a marketing executive get in trouble for running a spot on 'Survivor' that wasn't particularly distinctive. With the Super Bowl, everyone is sitting there second guessing and judging."

Speaking of risk, there is an actual game conducted between the ads. Does Calkins have a prediction regarding the outcome?

"I don't really follow the game much. I'm focused on the advertising," he says. "And I am from Buffalo originally, so the whole Super Bowl thing is a bit traumatic for me."

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