A Call for Creativity in New Metrics for Liquid Media  

Martha G. Russell

Stanford University 


This paper presents a call for creativity, within adaptive structures, to develop new metrics for new media.  It first reviews recent innovations in audience metrics for online media, including some evolving metrics for the Web 2.0 media ecosystem.  It then describes the disciplinary roots of academic research on which the current understanding of audience engagement and persuasion are based.  It further describes current software and hardware developments that are driving a new era of liquid media.  A framework for conceptualizing layers of media delivery and audience engagement that will be enabled by these new technologies is described.  Recommendations are made for collaboration between academics and practitioners in order to rapidly pursue an understanding of advertising effectiveness in this new environment and to develop metrics that can be harnessed to monetize audience engagement, rationalize media expenditures, and create reporting structures for sharing insights. 


Limits to Creativity 

It was unusual to hear the high-pitched heel-toe rhythm of cowboy boots coming down the hallway.  Most Minnesotans wore boots from November through April.  The sidewalks of the University of Minnesota’s East campus were cleared after snowfalls of one inch or more, as were the steps to the Electrical Engineering building, where the broadcast classroom reaching the greater Twin Cities technical community was located.  Jack Kilby’s boots had less to do with the Minnesota winter conditions than with his Texas home.  His ten-gallon hat made a similar reference from the top of his tall frame.  

I had asked Jack Kilby, an esteemed member of the Inventor’s Hall of Fame and celebrated with the National Technology Award for having invented the thermal printer and co-invented the integrated circuit, to speak at the U of M’s Microelectronic and Information Sciences Center about “Creativity in Engineering.”  It was during the mid-eighties. A new level of international competition had given rise to a national call for creativity to produce an accelerated rate of innovations in the engineering fields that fueled the digital age.  Companies seeking to play in the digital marketplace had entered a new era of “coopetition” – cooperating with competitors (Drucker 1999). The Microelectronic and Information Sciences Center was one of the first industry-university centers to bring together industry partners for pre-competitive research with cross-disciplinary participation from academic partners.  “Design-for-test” – the practice of establishing the criteria by which integrated circuits would be tested as the first step in the design process – had just been introduced and was considered a creative, breakthrough concept.  “Concurrent engineering” – the practice of several engineering specializations working at the same time on a particular objective (rather than in a linear hand-off sequence) had not yet been invented.  Jack was well-known by my Minnesota audience, and they were eager to hear what he had to say. His voice was as deep as his presence was tall. 

After clearing his throat, and extending the microphone to its full height, his booming voice drawled. “I’d like to thank Martha for inviting me to come to Minnesota to talk about creativity in engineering.” The audience in the teleconference room and at remote locations was engaged.  “There’s just one thing I’d like to say about that.” He paused. “There’s only SO much creativity any organization can tolerate.” He paused again.  “After that it starts to fall apart.”  And then he went on to talk about the new technical frontiers on which he and others at Texas Instruments were working.  

The concepts of “limits to creativity” and “design for test” are as relevant for advertising in the current context as they were for electrical engineering at that time. The concepts are relevant when they are applied to the field practice (the field of engineering, the field of advertising), or to the organization (the engineering company, the advertising agency), or to an assignment (the integrated circuit design, the campaign).  These concepts are especially important in anticipation of the evolution of today’s media into the era of semantic computing, with meaning and relevance at its core, and “liquid media,” in which droplets of media content flow as fluidly as bucketsful from one display to another.   

The practical value of creativity has limits because professionals who work together – across organizations, within teams, and over time – rely on their shared expectations of how the entities are structured. An agency agreement gives the agency assurance that the client will pay.  A work order gives the client assurance that the agency will direct its employees to work toward a specified objective.  The curriculum structure gives an academic institution assurance that its graduates will have mastered a core set of pedagogical tasks.   

Adaptive Structures 

The call for creativity in advertising is not a call to eliminate structure; quite to the contrary, especially in the current environment.  It is instead a call to acknowledge that the media have changed, that the structure of the advertising industry has changed, and that the relationship of the audience to their media has changed.  It is a call to accommodate those changes and to organize research and practice with adaptive structures.  It is additionally a call to anticipate the direction of the fast-paced technological changes that are in process, in order to work in what some have called Zero Time (Yeh, Pearlson, and Kozmetsky 2000).  It is a call to navigate those sea changes with attention to new horizons, and creative responses to opportunities to develop measures of audience engagement that will drive the monetization of the new media.   

The field of advertising faces immediate creative challenges in developing new metrics for accountability in a participatory media culture in which creativity has been democratized and each person is his or her own channel.  The advertising industry badly needs a creative push to develop new models for productive relationships in a flattened and out-sourced business economy in which audiences demand participation in highly relevant conversations in their interactive digital communications. Creativity is needed to invent the new analytical tools for these innovations and to structure adaptive deployment processes. 

Changing Rules of Play 

Responding to these challenges requires acknowledgement of the core proposition of the advertising industry – creating and sustaining meaning and relevance – and the new rules of play in today’s real-time interactive communications ecosystem (Heeter 1998).  Many consumers are insisting on participation in the creative process, turning their backs to media which they cannot choose, control, or create.  The participative digital communications environment mandates accountability that goes beyond the distinction of “advertiser-controlled” or “consumer-controlled” interactivity (Rogers and Thorson 2000), beyond reach and frequency, and beyond CPM (cost per thousand), CPP (cost per point), or CPI (cost per insertion).  Responding to these challenges mandates acceptance of new engagement thresholds for respect and relevance, as well as new interpretations of effectiveness (Li and Leckenby 2006; Wells 1997), and an accountability mindset that is fueled by digital technologies and intensified by economic pressures.   

Experience has shown that new media don’t simply replace old media and that, instead, new media expand the media choices to which audience attention is allocated (Reeves and Nass 1999).  The development of appropriate metrics helps organizations measure and benchmark their current performance and monitor it as it changes over time.  To be transformational these metrics must relate directly to the strategic goals of the company and measure characteristics that the organizations can influence (Singh and Latib 2008).  

It is the author’s belief, likewise, that the new metrics needed for accountability in the Web 2.0 environment are not likely to replace the legacy of reach and frequency metrics used for mass communications or the page views and click streams used for Web 1.0.  Rather, metrics for Web 2.0 media will take their place beside previously established metrics; and they, too, will adjust as new metrics are created for the coming era of semantic communications.   

Participation and Accountability 

From Spectators to Participants 

The conundrum of the participatory media culture is that participation is expected, but continuous, dedicated attention (Brint 2002) cannot be assumed.  Legacy audience media metrics, such as CPM and CPI, arose from the desire of channel developers, advertisers, and their clients to quantify the cost/benefit of media purchases. When they were developed, these legacy metrics assumed that each channel delivered media to its audiences (individuals, family, etc.) in a singular fashion.  Legacy media metrics assumed that each media exposure occurred in isolation; that viewers were attentive, and that viewers’ attention was dedicated to a single medium.  The field of advertising has traditionally differentiated purchased media (space in the media that is purchased by advertisers) and earned media (space in the media that is acquired without payment through journalistic and public relations efforts).  In a like manner, the distinction must be made between assumed attention, in which audience metrics count the number of people who could potentially pay attention to a message, and earned engagement, in which metrics measure the quality and quantity of viewers’ engagement. 

Attention to media is no longer singular.  Simultaneous media use by multi-tasking consumers is a fact in today’s marketplace.  In a landmark 2003 study, significant use of TV and Internet simultaneously was documented; also showing significant generational differences in whether people attend to each equally or to one more than the other (Pilotta, Schultz, and Drenik 2004).  Younger consumers in the millennial generation, those born between 1978 and 1996, use media differently than people born earlier do.  The use patterns of this cohort have had a significant impact on media (Ito and Okabe 2009).  Immersive and virtual environments are being used experimentally by advertisers (Grigorovici and Constantin 2004) and evaluated in research (Garau 2004). And if we acknowledge that humans have unlimited bandwidth for information processing (Biocca 1999), we must also accept that they have limited attention for which there is increasing competition. 

Additionally, multi-channel marketing strategies have become standard practice.  Permission marketing, Internet selling practices, and social media have been integrated into many strategies and campaigns.  Spending on alternative media hit $73.43 billion in 2007, a 22% increase over 2006, and was forecast in 2008 to increase 27% over 2007 levels of spending (Stevenson 2007). In the four years between 2005 and 2008, audience engagement in user-generated video grew from slightly over 3 billion in 2005 to 35 trillion views in 2008 (AccuStream 2008).  Combinations of offline and online tactics have been orchestrated across multiple customer touch points.  While it is challenging to ascertain the specific contribution each channel makes to the cumulative impact, even early findings of click stream results suggested that consumers’ views of their online shopping experiences were informed by their offline experiences (Coyle and Gould 2002). 

Consumers expect participation, even co-creation.  Consumer-generated media (CGM) – such as blogs, wikis, and social networking sites – have gained wide use and credibility by this segment, which has essentially defined social networks – 41% use MySpace, Facebook, or similar networks daily.  Millennials prefer the computer screen – the 2nd screen – to the TV screen, and many users text message regularly on what is now called the 3rd screen – the mobile device. In fact, forty percent said they IM – instant message – every day (Lenhart et al. 2007).  The fourth screen, some suggest, will be in the automobile. 

From Broadcast Channels to the Personal Channel 

Narrow-casting, the ability to send a specific and perhaps customized message to a specific location, is not restricted to individual screens on the computer.  The narrowcast delivery strategy can be used in other personal spaces (cars and homes), other personal devices (PDAs, cell phones, and homes), as well as in public places (stores, bars, elevators).  For example, digital screens with context-aware advertising have been introduced into waiting rooms, elevators, bars, stores and gas stations.  Sensors and feedback to database-driven content and systems allow advertisements on these media to recognize users and, in response, to personalize content, dynamically change price or modify the message (Russell 2009a).  Sensors, activated by consumer behavior, respond to the interaction. These adaptive media have the capacity to engage and persuade consumers either in tiny bursts of on-the-go time or while consumers are waiting inside or outside the retail establishment.  They can be used to deliver advertising at the point of purchase, the point of influence, and the point of consumption.   

Both quantitative and qualitative methods have been used to measure the effectiveness of out-of-home narrowcast advertising.  At the time of this writing, many of the narrow-casting channels are still in relatively pilot or preliminary stages. Studies have shown that messages placed at the point of purchase (POPAI 2003) have not only persuaded purchase, but have also influenced perception of the store (Russell 2008b). Network equipment providers have creatively applied existing concepts of audience engagement with advertising to document media effects using measures of awareness and recall to document that people noticed video messages inside bars (Burns 2008) and convenience stores (Russell 2008a) and outside at the fueling stations (Cox 2008).   

The mobile channel offers an additional set of opportunities and challenges for media measurement, for both broadcast and narrowcast advertising.  Content developers, channel developers, and technology developers are actively pursuing the opportunity to deliver and track the delivery of on-demand, personalized, context-relevant messages to individuals on their mobile devices.  Studies have documented the demographics and receptivity factors of consumers who are willing to receive ads on their mobile devices (Avot Media 2008).  Data-base driven narrowcast advertising offers the promise of being able to adapt the delivery of advertising messages according to changes in individuals’ location, social network, and availability in real time (Madhok 2008).   

From Likability to Linkability 

Applications that permit instantaneous creation and tracking of personal status online and on mobile platforms have introduced a shift from likability to linkability.  A new culture of personal status update ecosystem -Twitter and FriendFeed – was documented in 2008 (Lenhart 2009).  Through subscriptions to websites, established through coded requests called RSS (Really Simple Syndication), individuals and organizations can micro-publish to niche audiences.  The RSS technology enables new alliances and federations between message creators, message distributors, and audiences. The appeal of linking to a message or a site (linkability) and likability are inextricably intertwined.   

In this milieu, the application of social media to the advertising objectives of awareness, attention, and persuasion in the 2008 U.S. Presidential election provide a clear example of the effectiveness of user generated content and viral marketing (Russell 2008c) and of the effectiveness of social media (Brooks 2009; Hughes 2009), and early social media metrics documented the attention devoted to the 2009 Inaugural Address (Cashmore 2009).   

Social media marketing offers a channel for fans of a brand or company to promote the brand themselves in multiple online social media venues.  Through listening and engaging, people form voluntary communities around brands.  Many practitioners agree that Twitter and other personal update applications are becoming significant channels in the new media ecology.  Twitter specials and Twitter coupons, offered by Snap-On tools, for example, have yielded response rates as high as 30% (Covington 2009).  A fictitious character, Frank, twitters at ComcastCares about customer service (Odden 2009) and Comcast tracks the number and timing of people following that twitter stream as a measure of effectiveness and response time in this social medium.   

Tweets, as a media metric, however, require further consideration, because in Frank’s case, the intent of Comcast’s Twitter was not so much about using the channel to deliver customer service, as it was about broadcasting a customer service message.  A strong tweet stream of successful customer service interactions thus supports brand perception in the face of reported abuses announced by angry customers or the number of complaints coming to a call center.  The quality of influencer becomes very important to such a broadcast, and in one sense the influencers themselves become brands.  “In practice, consumers go to Google not only go to find recommendations; they also go to Google to search for the recommender” (Donahoe 2009).   

Blogs also super serve particular niches (Locke et al. 1999; Scoble and Israel 2006) of the long tail (Anderson 2006). Mass publishers lack the resources to simultaneously pursue many niches; blogs can be used to reach niches.  Blog aggregators, e.g., Google Reader and Newsgator, have entered with services for both audiences and creators.  Dashboard metrics have been adapted for bloggers; both content and audience can be characterized for specific blogs, and social graphs of communities and their interests can be developed.  Some of these metrics have evolved from traditional publishing: raw author contributions (average number of posts per month and words per post), audience growth, the ripple index (citations of blogs), and visitors, unique visitors, and subscribers (viewers who have given permission for content to be pushed to them).   

But some are specific to the reality of adaptive data base-driven conversations: conversation rate (average number of comments per post and number of words used in comments to posts), IP tags and filters (code based on internet protocol that invites or shields links, feeds, and widgets); viewer detail reports (geographic location, session tracks); and Visit Depth Index (Kaushik 2009).  Additionally, social media have an aftereffect. Newspapers are gone the next day, but online comments persist and can easily be found through searching.  Over time, social media content has as great or potentially greater shelf life than print or broadcast ads and becomes either an asset or a liability. 

From Display to Search 

New metrics for engagement and persuasion in adaptive, database-driven advertising are emerging for both online display, search, and classified advertising. Search terms have also been used to document and track consumer engagement, reflected in their search words and pathways among them.  As an aggregate, the pool of search terms is a database of consumer intentions and is perceived by many practitioners to hold the potential for new persuasion metrics by tracing the evolution from awareness to investigation, with escalation to sales anticipated.   

Search behaviors, incremental navigations, and customer signups are becoming acceptable measures to evaluate engagement, lead generation and conversion in search advertising. People search for people as well as for issues, products and brands.  As a database of intentions, search records provide clues to what interests may drive audience’s attention.  Standard reports include metrics that identify the highest and fastest gainers and changes in the frequency of queries quarter by quarter and year to year, as well as comparisons of how queries and registrations have changed – by geography and over time (Konar 2008).  Interactive online dashboards provide advertisers with continuous metrics and multiple levels of analyses to pinpoint opportunities to improve results during the course of campaigns.  Online queries have even been used as effectiveness metrics for an offline campaign when the offline call to action is online interaction.   

From Attention to Recommendation 

Other measurements used to document the effectiveness of advertising – both online and offline – are based on recommendations.  Advocacy and word of mouth were the original trusted tactics for advertising; attention to the source and the message were earned by familiarity, relevance, and trust.  In digital media, earned engagement is reflected in the power of online social networks to create influential recommendations and then spread them.  Bombarded with media, people have learned how to tune out messages delivered by a broadcast interruptive model.  New media require that advertisers behave like invited guests; bring wine, talk about interesting things, and add value.   

In one sense the resurgent importance of word of mouth and word of mouse (Banister 2004) is the resistance to mass interruption, although their relative contribution to brand perception has not been specifically calculated.  Advertisers are trying to help brands tap into those conversations – not so much to stop what people are saying, but to hear it so they can respond in relevant ways.  Collaborations between social scientists, computer scientists, and statisticians have resulted in inventive solutions such as buzz, social network analysis, and honest signals that have been adopted and are now accepted innovations in the toolbox of advertising metrics.  

The evolving metrics of buzz – both a form of engagement and a result of engagement – can identify engaged individuals, indicate the degree of engagement, and predict consumer response, given that engagement.  Using every message as a valid data point taking place in the context of their online social selves and social networks (their public profiles, wallpaper, group memberships, and friends), the text of blog posts and their associated comments reflect consumers’ relationships with brands.   

Buzz reach is a more complex metric than the traditional reach measures. It includes not only the number of eyeballs potentially exposed to content on a given page, but it also includes how much of that page is relevant to a product or brand, and how many people are tracking that page.  Additional dimension can be added to the metrics of buzz by computing the net promoter score – subtracting the number of people who are speaking negatively about a brand from the number of people who are promoting it (Owen and Brooks 2009). 

It must be emphasized, however, that buzz is complex and engagement is multidimensional.  Buzz relies on open data and reflects conversation – inherently complicated with slang, irony, nicknames, and jargon.  Using buzz metrics demands a constant balance between precision and recall.  Language offers many ways of referring to one thing, and language is easily misinterpreted.  Data for analysis can become multidimensional with methods such as weighting the source (influence), attaching metadata from traffic (how many people are viewing, how much talking, unique audience, audience growth rate), measures of how many people linking into the messages (authority), how quickly people are citing, and average time between linking.  Insightful analysis requires further consideration of the dynamics under the buzz – the valence of the discussion, intentions, and peaks (Niederhoffer 2008).   

From Mentions to Meaning 

To get deeper, more diagnostic clues about engagement, linguistic analysis can be added to the analysis of buzz.  By measuring the types of words used, linguistic analysis reveals how individuals and groups of people, events, products, and brands are related to each other.  Linguistic style is closely tied to individuals’ psychological and social states.  In fact, studies have shown relationships of linguistic style to emotion (depression, deception), biological states (testosterone), personality (neuroticism), cognitive style (complex thinking), and traditional age, gender, and class demographics (Pennebaker et al. 2007).   

Another method of studying linguistic markers is sentiment analysis.  Sentiment analysis of recommendations provides important indicators of engagement, intimacy, and social connection to brands, products, or services (Niederhoffer 2008).  Linguistic markers and sentiment analysis can be used to diagnose engagement in online conversations and evaluate the customer context (Pennebaker, Mehl, and Niederhoffer 2003).  While linguistic markers and semantic analysis can be evaluated using quantitative measures, interpretation of those measures is often needed.  Thus, the measures do not easily lend themselves to automated dashboard output of concise metrics that can be referenced by clients, agencies, and channel managers to monetize audience engagement for creative development of campaign management. 

From Simple to Complex 

The online interaction of user-influenced content and events, such as contests, polls, sweepstakes, games, privileged access, and challenges, has been integrated into both offline and online advertising campaigns, providing quantitative measures of consumer participation as measures their effectiveness.  These metrics are easily tracked by advertising practitioners through dashboard views that are automatically updated on a real-time basis.  Website visits and page views have also been used as metrics in comparing control versus lift markets. For example, alternative creative expressions (tag lines and copy) have been tested for their effectiveness, and results have been used to optimize active ad campaigns in real time by suspending the laggards and giving greater visibility to the winners.  But if the intent of the advertising goes beyond mere attention – as is the case for many campaigns seeking to introduce a brand into the competitive set, build a brand’s share, or affirm brand choice – other metrics are needed.  

Managing the customer context involves reaching the right audience at moments of relevance, integrating and reinforcing across media and across time, creating and using interactive, engaging ad formats, and measuring and optimizing to deliver performance according to the objectives of the advertising campaign.  Both descriptive and prescriptive metrics are needed to monitor the performance of campaign communications.  In a multi-tasking and multi-media ecology, evaluating a cross-platform campaign’s effectiveness in engaging and persuading the audience requires a corresponding complexity in the metrics used.  Several early innovations in measuring and reporting the effectiveness of advertising in cross-media messaging include Reach-through-relevance, Screen Consumption Quotient, Power-Score, and Serios. 

“Reach-through relevance” is an approach that takes advantage of market fragmentation by crafting an advertising platform that provides multiple (and possibly simultaneous) contact with consumers who are multi-tasking across channels. Identification of these practices has been guided by a combination of old and new metrics, measuring both assumed and earned engagement, along several dimensions of the persuasion process, as well as by its ultimate objective – sales. The experience of one leading online channel suggests that two practices are indicative of effectiveness in achieving reach-through relevance in online advertising.  The first of these practices addresses multi-tasking; it integrates complementary content and formats across media with messages that reinforce relevance and desirability.  The second practice, interactive and engaging ad formats, uses context-aware gadget ads to display content differently depending on the site on which it appeared.  The content of the ad is synchronized to the content of the site and is presented on the basis of search, as well as on the sequence and pages visited prior to the ad site (Konar 2008). 

The Screen Consumption Quotient (SCQ) is an index, developed for an alternative out-of-home media network in India, for variable pricing of media space based on the number of people potentially exposed to the ad and qualified by the business value of a geographically-defined audience with respect to their propensity to purchase (VJive Network 2008).  Based partly on household potential index (70%) and partly on store-based revenue data (30%), the metric encompasses socioeconomic and psychographic factors such as household income, education level, and literacy, as well as lifestyle data such as frequency of dining out and mobile phone ownership.  In this respect, the SCQ offers a strong quality dimension to the metric. 

Another innovative approach to measuring engagement and persuasion in context is the Power Score, a constructed metric derived for each channel at each stage of a specified decision process.  Computation of the Power Score includes a report of exposure, influence, valence of influence, and hierarchy of influence at a particular inflection point in a communication architecture defined for specific campaign objectives.  Using a combination of qualitative and quantitative insights and measures, a purchase decision model is developed to: describe the desired think, feel, and do outcomes intended for an advertising campaign; quantify the decision process elements – the stage relevance, the task importance, and the mindset salience; quantify brand priorities – brand equity by stages and task; and produce message testing and channel indices (expectation and passion) by stages and by tasks.  This decision model is then transformed into a communication model (the connection opportunities that exist across influential interactions are depicted as a dialogue map, message architecture, and media roles). Using quantitative data from original and syndicated sources, a derived Power Score is constructed to assess the potential of a channel to drive awareness, top of mind, and to shape an opinion (Giles 2008). 

This cross-channel consumer-centric approach studies the triggers of consumer engagement and purchase decision processes in order to identify new opportunities for the right message, time, and place.  It maps the dynamics of consumer decision cycles across triggers, stages, and transitions against the mindset, emotions, decision criteria, and media used by those consumers.  In this approach, strategic considerations of which media to use (and how) still requires an understanding of consumer perceptions about the brand, against winners and losers in the category. But ultimately strategy also rests on an understanding of consumers’ media habits and the role that media play in the context of the decision cycle – whether those are newly encountered media, passively used media, or actively sought media – on engagement and persuasion (Giles 2008). 

Another innovative approach is Serios, a monetary-based message prioritization system, which provides each user a dashboard view of their recognition by co-workers for attention to and responsiveness on highest priority team objectives. Driven by an appreciation for the economics of user attention for the approximately two billion people who use email, and the estimated 41% of their workday corporate email users will spend managing email messages in 2009, Serios enables both the sender and the receiver to learn what is important to each other and to quantify the value of reading and responding (Radicati 2007).  

Although developed for the work environment, the concept is relevant for interactive advertising and marketing communications.  The concept of collaboratively determining the value of a communication, in the case of Serios represented by points for relevance and contribution to team objectives, may eventually involve both advertiser and audience in establishing metrics for meaningful information exchange.  Attention and engagement metrics for corporate communications have potential application for advertising communications – and vice versa.  Creativity in adapting and adopting inventive solutions that facilitate value clarification in one-to-one relationships and measure that with dashboard metrics warrants consideration for creative innovations in advertising.   

From Legacy to Leverage 

Developing brand relationships via social experiences in user generated content (UGC) and user controlled relevance requires metrics that can describe the psychological mindsets of consumers in order to refine the creation and delivery of promotional messages for maximum impact (Daugherty, Eastin, and Bright 2008).  The same could be said for user-controlled content – search, RSS, Twitter streams, etc.  Therefore, a more accurate understanding of the current media environment requires measurements of attention, engagement, receptivity, persuasion, influence, and effectiveness which acknowledge simultaneous media exposure.  The legacy metrics – although widespread in their use, even with adaptations for social media – are simply not sufficient for today’s advertising delivery methods or for consumers’ multi-tasking and multi-channel involvement in a participatory media culture.  Equally important, the metrics associated with the content or time slot, for example, CRM, is not descriptive of the audience exposed to the ad or of the type of impact the ad has on members of the audience. 

Initial Structures for Understanding Audience and Media 

The audience must be part of the metric.  The concept of engagement is seen differently by media network professionals, advertisers, and academics (Russell, 2009b).  The conundrum facing practitioners is that a single, established metric is easier to communicate, use, and manage; yet, multiple measures (often new and not fully understood) are needed to accurately reflect engagement and persuasion of audiences in today’s multimedia advertising campaigns.  Channel developers must often convince media buyers of the value of the new metrics in order to sell new media.  Creativity is needed in facilitating communication across these perspectives.  Innovations in advertising metrics require inventive methods of disseminating information, building trust, and confirming agreement.   

Channel managers (and their colleagues who are developing new channels) want to count the connections of consumers with their media so they can more convincingly say: “Buy my property.  Your customers watch it . . .all the time. And they really like it!”  The quantification of how much customers watch and how much they like the property is central to the price of placing an ad on the property.  Sales of media are severely handicapped without having a metric of its value – however that is defined.  

Culture and Meaning 

Anthropology, ethnography, psychology, social psychology, education, and sociology – each discipline has constructs, methods, and perspectives that are particular to the way engagement and persuasion are viewed. A complete and holistic understanding of a complex phenomenon, such as advertising engagement and persuasion, requires a synthesis that integrates and transcends all of them.  

Anthropology, the study of the webs of meaning and significance that guide behavior and actions in our culture, provides insights for developing deeper consumer connections by providing an understanding of what’s happening beneath the surface.  Ethnographic researchers, using “thick description” (Geertz 1974), seek to illuminate the meaning that lies behind observed and reported behavior. 

Two fundamental assumptions underlie anthropological and ethnographic approaches. The first assumption is that consumer connections are based on symbolic properties attributed to products, services, and brands; these properties vary with time, culture, location, and other factors.  The second important assumption is that these connections are mutable; they’re subject to change by either consumers and the brand – or both.  In a media environment in which consumers expect to co-create the creative elements, both consumers and producers have power over the meaning given to brands and products.  

Engagement, Mood, Relevance, and Persuasion 

Psychologists have traditionally focused on one or more psychological components of engagement: cognitive (resonance – “get it” – speaks to me), emotional (totally immersed, absorbed, the opposite of indifference), social (interactive, participative, and involved), and longevity (a time factor, a commitment to the future, seeing a long term relationship).  The field of psychology has also focused on measurements of persuasion.  Early explanations were based on main effects (McGuire 1969) – such as learning theory (Hovland, Janis, and Kelly 1953; Kelman 1958) or cognitive response theory (Greenwald 1968).  Main effects studies described the influence of persuasion variables (distraction, emotion, source credibility) on increased or decreased persuasion as a single process.   

Other psychological theories attempting to explain persuasion have been based on dual process models in which information is processed by either central or peripheral routes: the Elaboration Likelihood Model (Petty and Cacioppo 1981, 1986); the Hedonic Experiential Model (Holbrook and Hirschman 1982); the Hierarchical Processing Model (MacInnis and Jawroski 1989); and the Experiential Processing Model (Meyers-Levy and Malaviya 1999). Although the dual process models differ in terms of which effects, processes and situations they use to describe those processes and effects, these models acknowledge that multiple effects are possible for the same variable and that any one effect could be caused by different processes.  Dual process models accept the possibility that any one variable could operate differently in different situations.   

Psychologists’ studies also often focus on the extent to which physiological and neurological changes occur when people are engaged.  Using measures of skin conductance and heart rate, their measures reflect the physical dimensions of emotional engagement (Ahn et al. 2009; Bailenson et al. 2008).  With special significance to database-driven advertising, research has shown that different regions of the brain are activated when people believe they are interacting online with real people, as opposed to interacting with a computer-automated application (Chen et al. 2010), a finding with significant impact on how creative messages are developed and disseminated in online media.  

The field of social psychology has also made important contributions to the understanding of persuasion.  Some social psychological constructs, such as interpersonal communication (Watzlawick, Bavelas, and Jackson 1967) or the self-validation model (Bailenson et al. 2008; Petty and Brinol 2008), focus on metacognitive processes to understand how an individual’s thoughts about the content, source or process of communication may help to explain attention, relevance, and engagement with media in the human experience.  “Focusing on the processes by which variables have their impact is important because it is informative about the immediate and long-term consequences of persuasion” (Petty and Brinol 2008). 

Both psychologists and social psychologists have studied the influence of emotions on persuasion and decision making (Bailenson et al. 2008; Damasio 2003; Mittal 1994; Shiv and Fedorikhin 1999; Zajonc and Marcus 1982).  The notion that emotion increases attention and memory (Doyle 1994; Du Plessis 2005) has received acceptance by both academicians and practitioners.  Nass (2008), however, argues that moods, which last from minutes to hours, should be the focus of such studies, rather than emotions, which last only for seconds.  Moods, he argues, are the emotional lenses through which people experience their worlds.  Some key persuasive goals that are influenced by mood and may benefit from different mood strategies include trust, memory, persuasion, acquisition, and continued use (Nass 2008).   

Signal, Noise, and Spread 

Computer science offers yet other conceptual paradigms and considerations.  The technology of reality mining – analyzing collections of machine-sensed environmental data pertaining to human social behavior – is used to reveal predictive patterns (Pentland 2008).  Based on the evolutionary biology premise that human behaviors have evolved from ancient primate signaling mechanisms, data from mobile phones, electronic ID badges, or digital media are used to track and visualize the rhythms of interaction for people in their environments.  

Collaborations of social scientists and computer scientists have adapted concepts from network analysis based on identity of people, types and identity of relationships, for social network analysis, referred to as a social graph.  Social graphs are representations of a person’s online identity, activity, and relationship to other people, media, and ideas. The linkages that describe an individual can be aggregated across many individuals, producing data that can be analyzed to identify the numbers and strength of connections, as well as describe the location of actors and the centrality of interaction.  In a media context, social network analysis uses statistical analysis to make visible the connections that are important for information sharing, assisting in the diagnosis of which and to what extent certain people are central to effective network functioning.  In a map-like representation, the pattern of relationships provides clues to the viral potential of relationships (Watts 2003). 

The factors by which that viral potential can be influenced have been studied by epidemiologists, who apply concepts of natural selection, cultural selection, adaptiveness, cultural drift, and modes of transmission, to understand the transmission of cultural traits.  Epidemiological studies also reveal cultural mutations – changes for which no fixed paradigm for detection exists, although major changes may be revealed retrospectively (Cavalli-Sforza, Lucca, and Feldman 1981).  The dynamics of cultural change within a population, the inherently social nature of media, and the nongenetic transmission of brand perceptions and preferences, all present opportunities for expanding the understanding of the process and impact of viral media and the decay of that impact. 

Sociologists have added concepts of social networks to those of epidemiology, to study audience engagement in viral media, such as YouTube videos.  Applying two constructs of epidemiology (a power-law distribution of waiting times between cause and action and an epidemic cascade of actions becoming the cause of future actions), the relaxation response of a social system after endogenous and exogenous bursts of activity was documented by studying the time series of daily views of YouTube videos (Crane and Sornette 2008).  Results showed that fast gainers were prompted by particular event, as well as by the quality of the content. 

Truth vs. Wisdom 

The conundrum for academic researchers lies in the expectation that truth, as defined by statistical probability, can be developed to truly reflect engagement in new media and measure its persuasive impact.  With the caveat that correlation is not necessarily causation, statistical truth is more likely to be found in large numbers than in the smaller niches that comprise the “long tail.”  While disciplinary deconstruction of advertising effectiveness may facilitate intellectual precision in the development of theoretical constructs and make logical explanations more defensible, the complexity of life outside the laboratory relegates the precision of academic measurements to primarily research problems that are less urgent.  Additionally, the requirement that academic research make new contributions to the intellectual domain means that academicians often use promising innovations as a stepping stone to the next granular insight, rather than stitching them together and refining the integration for real world application.   

Professional wisdom and seasoned judgment include understanding the individual constructs as well as the metrics that integrate them.  An integrated and holistic understanding is essential for the descriptive analysis of engagement and persuasion processes.  An integrated and holistic understanding is also essential for the prescriptive analyses that inform strategic decisions in real campaigns.  It is the synchrony of these two requirements that makes collaboration between academicians and practitioners vital to the development of metrics in the field of advertising.  Research that makes significant contributions will reveal truths as well as extend wisdom. 

Now, Rethink (Almost) Everything 

Scaling personalized one-to-one relationships into larger markets is the promise of Web 2.0.  Dynamically adapting that personalization so that it is relevant to both the brand and the consumer in a changing context is the promise of the semantic web, which some have called Web 3.0.   

From Device-Centered to Person-Centered Media 

Advertisers, as well as corporate communication managers, acknowledge the way digital media migrates across work time and leisure time.  Content creators have talked about repurposing media assets across multiple platforms and devices.  Information scientists appreciate the importance of archival, storage, and retrieval systems that enable digital media assets to be accessed for delivery across multiple media types.  Assuring the integrity of content throughout multiple format transformations (pixel size, compression, screen resolution, etc.) is a major challenge for media technologists.  But even in video, a media type recognized for the complexity of its transcoding requirements for both production and delivery, important enabling gateway technologies are rapidly evolving for both professionals and end users (Sathianathan 2008).   

The results deliver to media consumers what can be called “liquid media” – content that can seamlessly be transferred from one format to another and from one platform to another.  For example, a video stream initiated on a desk computer can be transferred, at any point in the video, to another device – a laptop, a mobile phone, etc. The video stream is identified with the viewer; the stream is indifferent to which of the viewers’ devices will receive it.  A personal video, captured on a PDA, can be “tossed” to a screen and shared by everyone in the room. 

The advent of liquid media introduces both an opportunity and a challenge for advertisers.  Just as for other single channels, liquid media must be relevant both to the consumer and for the context.  However, content – as it appears in the context of different devices and locations and is distributed to various individuals – can be adapted for relevance to the consumer’s mindset and experience.  In a stream of water, each drop loses its unique identity, yet the molecules which comprise the stream retain their identity, even as phase shifts change the form of the stream – to ice or steam. 

The opportunity for liquid media lies in the potential for content to have consistency across channels and yet adapt to its consumption – avoiding burn-out from repetitive messages, leveraging relationship development tactics with successive user permission, and adapting to synergies across multiple content domains.  It remains to be demonstrated (but it certainly could be tested) that with liquid media both advertisers and consumers will place higher value on interactive advertising that delivers relevant messages with an appropriate response mechanism to a receptive audience.   

Content Tagging 

Uniform resource locators (URLs) are the basis for navigating online web pages.  Referring to specific units of content rather than to pages, the semantic web will include uniform resource identifiers (URI), which describe many aspects of online content and are assigned by content owners; using extensible markup language (XML) to designate how content can be used interchangeably and resource description frameworks (RDF) that indicate the semantics (meaning and relevance).   

The promise of the semantic web is that specific units of content can be offered and accessed on the basis of meaning that is dynamically determined.  By combining patterns of user behaviors with URI and RDF data, software applications will be intelligent enough to anticipate context and meaning to enhance the user’s stated intentions in a request for content.  Because of embedded semantics in the liquid media environment, users’ questions and commands will not need to be as precisely framed.  The synergistic use of semantic tags (URI) and the referential frameworks (RDF) may make it possible for responses to be obtained for even the most ambiguously defined queries.   

Personal Area Network 

Context identification tags, proof checking mechanisms, and digital signatures are emerging components of the semantic web applications (Swartz and Hendler 2001).  These technologies have the potential to play important roles in enhancing the reliability with which a mobile device, a laptop, a desktop, a server, and a car can communicate with each other, the trustworthiness of documents on the Web, the relevance of content, and the efficiency of finding the answers to precise questions.   

At the same time, explorations are underway to deploy technology enablers that accurately and dynamically map the geolocation of wireless devices onto spectrum (range of radio frequency) used by those devices to prevent, permit, and control their ability to communicate with each other (Boscovic 2009).  At the time of this writing, geolocation identification is being combined with radio sensing technologies and the use of cloud computing services (both data storage and computing tasks are shared by computers in many locations, operating as a virtual hub – e.g., “cloud”) to allow the functionality of the local area network to leave the building – to become mobile. 

Geolocation identification, radio interference technologies, and semantic tags together create the opportunity for wide-ranging applications using URI, XML, and RDF to be developed for a personal area network (PAN).  Local area networks in homes and personal spaces provide clues to messaging opportunities in the PAN.  Personalized devices, linked for cross-functionality, share applications and data to provide a connected experience for the user.  For example, this capability potentially marries the ability to coupon at the point of purchase at a price set for a loyalty program only if the item is in stock (Russell 2009a). 

One can image that, with the successful introduction of content tagging, geolocation interference maps, personal identification and device synchronization, and privacy protocols, the personal area network of the future will become an event driven network overlay that is dynamically created for the purpose of accomplishing a task and then dismantled as soon as the task has been completed.  This would allow data base driven personalized liquid media to flow across the PDA, phone, laptop, and car of an individual, adjusting in real time to changing requirements for display and responding to user behaviors, only some of which would require personal interaction with the device.  Sensors on the devices would intelligently detect tactile, audio, and keystroke indicators of changes in a user’s position, state, and need.  Feedback to the server would accumulate a record of the person, the content, the device, and the response – enabling the measurement of content, channel, and response for each user – over time.   

The Privacy-Friendly Handshake 

Additionally, emerging interests and capabilities in creating and storing person-specific tags and frameworks at the personal level for each user offers promises of highly personal media experiences.  It is not know yet whether those tags, and the control they enable, will reside at the device or in an application.  Regardless, those technologies are likely to transfer control, and ownership, of the personal data to the consumer, thereby increasing the necessity of explicit consumer participation in measurers’ desires to capture tracking data. With consumers potentially having greater control of the content they receive and the data they share, an explicit quid pro quo for transparency and data-rights may be even more relevant and valuable to tomorrow’s consumer (Hewitt 2009b).   

As advertisers participate in privacy-friendly personalized media services, they will be increasingly in the role of the invited guest, entering with the hope of building a mutual relationship.  If the guest gives them permission, guests may talk to each other, for example, permitting co-op campaigns.  In the anticipated liquid media of the personal network environment, the reciprocity of technical and social handshakes between advertiser and consumer, between consumer and consumer, and between advertiser and advertiser, open the door to collecting measures of relevant personal messages (Gosling 2008), delivered in context, consumed at the right time – a metric for the right message, to the right audience, at the right time and on the right device.  Advertising must become integrative instead of interruptive. 

New Mental Models for Liquid Media  

From the consumer’s perspective, the mental model for liquid media requires accommodation to “flow” in the media experience (Czikszentmihalyi 1990), the requirements for which may be specific to the individual’s context.  Market conditions (Christensen 1997) and enabling technologies are producing the “perfect disruption” (Hewitt 2009a). 

An adaptation of Michael Porter’s market analysis model of value chain and value system to the media marketplace suggests that media will become more integrated into peoples’ lives, e.g., Twitter.  Thierer and Eskelsen (2008) posit that four layers are required to evaluate the state of current media: product or content; distribution; receiving or display devices; and storage. While these layers were proposed initially as conceptual tools for analyzing the media industry itself, the framework has significant potential for guiding the development of audience metrics as content, distribution channel, devices, and storage – by consumers – to continue to evolve.   

To be applicable to media metrics for advertising, the model requires some further clarification of the layers as well as the addition of a fifth and sixth layer.  To the four layers initially proposed: 

Product or content:


Receiving or display devices:



These additional layers need to be added:  



This expanded model of media layers introduces two elements not present in existing metrics.  It is presented to catalyze discussion and research that will refine not only the layers but the measures that describe audience interaction with the media.  It is presented as a straw man adaptive structure and a call for creativity in developing new metrics for the coming media ecology of liquid media in the semantic web environment. 

At the time of this writing, neither the legacy metrics nor the emerging metrics now available address all six criteria.  As new metrics develop, one can expect that multiple measures will be identified, each appropriate to the particular objectives of various campaign objectives – awareness, perception, affinity, trial, loyalty, community, etc.   

These measurements – or others that will be proposed – alone or in combination, informed and rationalized by a combination of academic and business research, using the new technologies of liquid media and the semantic Web, could deliver a suite of metrics with relevance to both the Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 media ecologies.  Working together academics and practitioners could create this new metric.  That’s the good news. 

The bad news is that new technological horizons are coming at us fast.  Accelerated change, depending on your point of view, is either the bad news or the terrific news (Hewitt 2009b). New developments in content tagging, geolocation, and interference mapping, semantic integration, and encryption software are offering tools to create intersections of synergy (and thus, potential metrics) for the future. 


In sum, current academic approaches to understanding the impact of advertising include concepts and tools currently practiced by a variety of academic colleagues and their disciplines; each discipline has its unique perspective.  Most of the concepts and tools used now are derived from the broadcast media ecosystem, updated for the Internet. New metrics are needed, in part because the legacy metrics are outdated but also because the digital world is evolving at an accelerated speed.  New advertising channels are being invented; there is an explosion of data; that data is increasingly portable, and technological platforms are in a state of flux.  While we are still in the relatively early days of the Internet, the practice and study of advertising is rapidly being swept into the era of semantics, meaning, and context. 

Truth Is Framed by Context 

Given the importance of personal context to create the relevance that will earn engagement, today’s academicians and practitioners must study authenticity, credibility, and the relationship trajectories in the brand experience, in decision pathways, and in the cultural context surrounding these. They need measures of earned engagement that are relevant to today’s media environment. They need measures that will reflect the power of the consumer to shape the meaning of the brand.   

Single metrics may have been adequate for a simpler time.  Even at the time of this writing, the comfort and familiarity of legacy metrics has great appeal to professionals in a time-limited, budget-constrained marketplace.  While cutting corners with simple solutions may work in the short term, the long term survivors in the current economic squeeze are likely to be those who help to create the future that is coming.  Few would argue that the complexity of cross-platform campaigns for the self-interruptive multi-tasking, multi-media consumer will go away.  Simple, unsophisticated metrics based on bad science do not fit the context of liquid media and the semantic web. 

Context is Personal and Social 

The influence of emotion, moods, and sentiment on happiness, confidence, and trust also has important intellectual and practical implications.  The meaning of convenience – instant gratification, ease of use, and access – and its relevance to various phases of consumer purchase decision processes has both immediate and long term considerations. It is imperative to understand the relevance and role of community in empowerment, sharing, and leadership for communication and influence. The interplay of background and foreground in simultaneous media usage is foundational to understanding attention, receptivity, and messaging in simultaneous media use.  Further understanding of these issues may help to create metrics and also to guide their use.   

Context is Professional 

Significant opportunities exist for academic researchers to enrich their theory testing, generate new hypotheses, and validate new metrics through attention and engagement with real advertising campaigns – contributing to their disciplines with expanded scope. New academic research agendas in engagement and persuasion can be stimulated by the field experiments conducted by advertising planners and practitioners, and many new intellectual frontiers can be identified for advertising research. Engagement and persuasion are multidimensional phenomena that require interdisciplinary approaches to develop a full understanding; and new media are continually evolving.   

New job descriptions are emerging for practitioners.  In a world in which communities of practice and communities of attention create the niches that define markets, in which search words and twitter streams define a brand, the role of brand manager is changing, too.  Some organizations have introduced the new role of “community manager;” the person responsible for how the brand is introduced, perceived, and used by communities of people linked through self-generated activities and communications. 

Practitioners’ integrative and iterative experiments in the field offer rich opportunities for advertising researchers to test theory, methods, and conclusions and describe those in the context of the holism of real life. Collaboration and transparency between academics and practitioners in the development of constructs and strategies can allow more rapid iterations in testing new measurement concepts and methods and can reduce the risks in selecting those to scale for broader use.   

Context is Economic 

Media metrics are used by clients to judge the effectiveness of campaigns: sales, overall traffic, earned media, and directional data; assessment metrics inform the “refresh” of the media and guide product design and development.  Metrics are also needed by advertisers and network developers.  Advertisers need metrics to determine priorities, to decide on conflicting arguments and to resolve competing values in organizations and systems.  Network developers need metrics to convince financiers – and clients – that there is a return on the investment of resources.  

According to Sir Martin Sorrell (2009), CEO of WPP, the largest media holding company in the world, 90 percent of a media company’s business in 5 years will be based on what you already sell today, but to keep that offer relevant and to assure the continuation of the enterprise, it’s vital to invest in the remaining 10%.  To understand the immediate and future opportunities, he continued, media professionals and their organizations need to devote substantial resources to understanding their audiences and making sure their businesses are “rooted” in consumer insight.  Across WPP, for example, Sir Martin Sorrell said that $4B out of the roughly $15B of WPP’s anticipated revenues in 2009 will come from services designed to reveal and harness consumer insights.  CFO’s, he continued, understand accountability, and metrics are the key to more responsive, more measureable digital media investments. 

Measurements of effectiveness are vital to the business propositions of new media, and parsimony is advantageous in developing metrics and standards. Definitions and standards are evolving, but at this time most innovations are treated on a situational basis.  Decisions have to be made.  Journalists and reporters are going to write and talk and sell the things they understand; mass publishers do not have the resources to chase niches (Moore 2009).  In the absence of proven metrics, experience shows that the void will be filled – either faulty metrics will be used or best guesses will prevail. 

Context is Creative 

The creative synergy of many disciplines is required for the needed inventions in metrics of advertising effectiveness.  The understanding of fundamental phenomena that comes from traditional contributions must be enhanced with creative contributions from new fields, such as epidemiology, network science, evolutionary biology, and distributed/connective/collective intelligence.  And yet, creativity – while essential – is not sufficient.  Innovation occurs when a creative solution has been accepted, and the acceptance of new metrics for new media involves a diverse group of professionals – network media managers, media buyers, strategists, analysts, academics, creatives, clients, brand managers, educators, and more.   

The limits to creativity in developing new metrics for new advertising media are found in the willingness (or lack of it) of practitioners to understand, trust, and adopt new metrics.  The definition of measurable objectives for advertising communications, as key elements of the strategic planning process, will establish “design for test” principles for practitioners and will guide the choice of high impact research topics for academicians. 

We live in a time in which demands for accountability, enabled by digital technologies, have increased.  Digital technologies used for advertising also provide greater options for the creation, delivery, and adaptation of communication campaigns; and tracking can be specific to the user, event, and product.  Narrowcasting and data base driven media channels have revolutionized content delivery and tracking of interactive advertising.  Adaptive media powered by digital technologies give advertisers greater opportunities to automatically collect information – for example click stream and search term analysis – about audience exposure and response to the delivered message.  There is a growing expectation that the Holy Grail – advertising that is digitally interactive, promises privacy-friendly personalization, and delivers accountability for viewers’ engagement and response – is within reach.   

Advertising practitioners are increasingly viewing the results of advertising according to specific campaign objectives.  They seek metrics to evaluate how well the campaign has accomplished intentional changes in the relationships between customers and their products and brands.  Innovations in metrics for these evaluations, therefore, must be influenced by the campaign objectives as well as the media used, and it is not unusual for innovative campaigns to include new as well as old media – and therefore to require both new and old metrics.  The agency business is in the midst of an urgent shift to realign with the cultural and business environments. Establishing new metrics requires time and involves intellectual and operational challenges. The process is multidimensional and complex.  Creativity across these different perspectives is required if relevant new metrics are to be invented and adopted.   


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About the Author 

Martha G. Russell is Associate Director of Media X at Stanford University, a membership-based, interdisciplinary research center focused on human use of advanced communication technologies. From consumer issues at The Pillsbury Company and Coca-Cola to technology leadership and information sciences for companies such as Nortel, Control Data, 3M and Honeywell, Martha’s background spans a range of marketing, innovation, and technology transfer endeavors.  She has led research programs at the University of Minnesota and The University of Texas at Austin and has consulted internationally on technology innovation for regional development.  She organized the Internet2 Sociotechnical Summit in 1999, bringing together social scientists and engineers from Internet2 sponsoring organizations to accelerate experimental activities using the high bandwidth Abilene network and develop a research agenda in high bandwidth communications for the social sciences.  Dr. Russell is a Senior Research Fellow at the Human Sciences and Technology Advanced Research (HSTAR) Institute at Stanford University and also at the Institute for Innovation, Creativity and Capital (IC2) at the University of Texas at Austin. She has produced award-winning educational films; her presentations and articles on technology transfer have been translated into Chinese, Hungarian, and Italian.  A photographer and flutist, Martha has authored several cookbooks and serves on the Boards of several organizations emphasizing music, arts, and programs for at-risk children.   E-mail: [email protected]


The author thanks Carl Hewitt, Dragan Boscovic, and Neal Burns for helpful comments to an earlier draft.