The Super Bowl of Deflated TV Expectations (As seen in MediaPost)
With the ever-increasing cost of a 30-second TV spot during the Super Bowl, the ad industry once again finds itself asking whether the massive investment is worth it. Ad trades run thick with articles that are heavy on speculation and qualitative analysis, but relatively light on real data. They praise the creative excellence of the ads without providing a rigorous examination of their impact on sales or an attempt to isolate the effects of the Super Bowl.
For our analysis, we’ve decided to turn a more quantitative eye toward the impact of Super Bowl ads. We initially set out with the assumption that Super Bowl advertising must have some positive impact on a brand’s other direct response-based advertising; and that the widespread exposure to these ads would naturally have a halo effect that would increase sales. We figured we’d be able to easily show lift, throw out a few charts, and spend no more than a couple of hours on the analysis.
As it turns out, we were wrong.
The Rising Cost of Super Bowl Advertising, by Year
The primary goal of our study was to examine the impact of Super Bowl advertising on display conversion rates for those advertisers who had Super Bowl ads. The theory was that Super Bowl advertisers, benefitting from a carefully produced nationally televised spot seen by a massive audience, would see conversion rate improvement for their mobile and display advertising in the weeks following the Super Bowl as a result of the increased awareness and interest in the advertised product.
To do this, we looked at each advertiser who advertised during the Super Bowl and who partnered with Rocket Fuel both before and after the game in 2012, 2013, and 2014. We then compared their conversion-rate performance in the weeks before the Super Bowl to their conversion rates after the event. We then compared these changes in conversion rates to those for similar advertisers (for example, in the same industry) that did not advertise during the Super Bowl. Because the majority were automotive advertisers, we focused primarily on this vertical during the analysis to ensure adequate sample size (10 marketing initiatives over 2012, 2013, and 2014).
Note that “conversions” are advertiser-defined and similar across each of these initiatives. Conversions are determined by someone performing actions on the website, such as locating a dealer, signing up for a test drive, or browsing inventory.
Our initial findings appeared to support the notion that Super Bowl advertising had a positive impact on conversion rates. Auto advertisers who advertised during the game averaged 14.9% higher conversion rates in the four weeks following the Super Bowl (February) compared to the four weeks prior (January). This effect was even stronger if they weren’t advertising a luxury vehicle.
However, plotting the conversion rates for these campaigns by week told a different story:
If Super Bowl advertising were actually driving greater conversion rates through a sort of halo effect, then we might expect to see a significant increase immediately following the game, rather than a gradual upward trend that appears to have started in January. This led us to investigate the standard sales cycle for cars over that same period. Using data from Edmunds.com for sales in early 2014, we can see that this increase in conversion rates simply mirrors the monthly industry-wide sales data. This suggests that auto advertisers get little to no additional value from their February advertising as a result of Super Bowl advertising.
Comparatively, our initial analysis for luxury vehicles showed slower post-Super Bowl growth in the same fashion, leading to the initial notion that non-luxury vehicle display ads might benefit more from Super Bowl advertising.
Some might suggest that the value of a Super Bowl ad can’t be determined online. However, prior research from Rocket Fuel, eMarketer, and JD Power suggests that auto buyers primarily research potential purchases online in the weeks prior to visiting a dealer. As a result, we would expect to see an increase in campaign conversion rates that focus on these research actions on dealer websites as a result of Super Bowl advertising in the weeks following the game.
Changes in Usage During Halftime
During the 2014 Super Bowl (6 – midnight, EST), Rocket Fuel saw over 2.5 billion bid requests across the display, mobile, video, and fbx channels from 81 million unique users in the United States. Requests decreased every hour every hour through The Big Game’s run time, with little variation by device. This may be due to the record number of eyeballs fixated on the game: In February 2014 Nielsen reported a record number of viewers for the 2014 Super Bowl halftime show: 115.3 million, more than the game itself.
An Alternative Strategy
While it’s logistically impossible (and potentially undesirable) to win *every* bid for media that’s made available on the exchanges (though you could get pretty close with the right bid amounts), we can still imagine a hypothetical situation where, by placing the maximum bid, an advertiser wins every single available bid during the Super Bowl-all 2,542,573,344 opportunities. Assuming an average net cost of $1.50 cpm for that inventory (with high bids to capture more valuable inventory), this purchase would cost an advertiser $3.8 million, $700k less than those 30 seconds of TV ad time during the Super Bowl itself. While the brand metrics may differ, we believe that this method could be slightly more effective at generating conversions and online sales, particularly among consumers who aren’t watching the Super Bowl broadcast for the 30 seconds during which the ad airs. Moreover, with such a massive online burst of audience reach, an advertiser could then deploy tried and true up-sell or reminder marketing techniques across all digital channels, rather than the one-and-done effect of a Super Bowl ad.
Even a more traditional media buying approach would yield some interesting opportunities. As an alternative to buying every piece of biddable inventory, for the same cost as a 30-second Super Bowl TV spot, digital advertisers can also buy an 11-day takeover of the YouTube homepage, a 9-day takeover of Turner Networks’ affiliated web pages (which includes TNT.tv, CNN.com, NBA.com, AdultSwim.com, etc.), 45 days of standalone ads on Facebook’s logout page, and over 37 days of sponsored trending on Twitter. Those advertisers particularly interested in diversifying can just buy every one of these items for three days, reaching more people for longer periods.
Interestingly, it would appear that auto advertisers are wising up to the idea that without measurable ROI, perhaps it’s time to focus their advertising efforts elsewhere this year. According to Detroit News, there will only be 5 auto advertisers for this year’s game, the lowest since 2010 (for comparison, the 2014 Super Bowl saw 11).
Will beer, soda, and snacks follow? Only time will tell, but in the face of quantitative analysis, it may be time for marketers to punt that spot and make their CFOs happy with data-driven marketing decisions. Until then, we’ll be distracted by B.G.A.D.D (Big Game Attention Deficit Disorder), brought on by children, food, bathroom breaks and conversation during the Super Bowl.