Display advertising is a marketer’s dream. I mean, it is one ATL activity wherein a brand manager can put his hands up and say – “I will give you an estimate on the number of impressions your ad copy will get, the CTR on it, but I can’t give you an estimate on the number of leads this activity will generate for your brand”. As a person looking to invest in display advertising, you often wonder, where is my ROI?

Social media platforms might just answer your ROI question. This is how display advertising works presently. Let’s take an example of rich media ads you see on Yahoo. You can buy ad space on the website for a day and show your ads to people visiting, say, the Yahoo homepage or show them ads when they sign in, right in their inboxes. Platforms like Yahoo do try their level best to extract some social data from platforms like Facebook and Twitter by asking you to connect your profile to social platforms. Some people also fill up data on their Yahoo profiles – The only basic information that Yahoo asks for is gender and date of birth. But how many of us fill in our date of birth correctly? Let’s assume most of us do. So, the only ad targeting data that Yahoo has with it is gender and date of birth. If they get lucky, they have some interest based data thanks largely to social integration.

Marketers buy ad space on the website and their ads start getting served to people visiting the website on that particular day/period. Pretty cool if you are a large brand and your objective is just branding – I saw Microsoft do this a lot, right before and even after launching Windows 8. But you still don’t know, what is the return on this investment? Of course there are ways like asking consumers where they heard about your product at the point of sale or conducting a survey on your Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn community. However, with so much paid media being fed to the digital consumer across different platforms, he might not even remember where/when he first heard about your product!

This is where the BIG data that social networks have with them can aid marketing managers. Imagine this, I see an ad on Facebook or LinkedIn and click on it or just see it and take no action. I see the same ad multiple times – take an action or I just see it. At the end of two weeks, I go to an offline store and buy the product. At the point of sale, I am asked for my name, contact number and email id. All that social platforms need to do is get a hold of the data of all purchases in a given period and track it back to the ads served to individuals during that period and give a report to the marketing manager. This way, the marketing manager will be able to know the number of sales made as a result of his advertising efforts. This should put the ROI measurability factor to rest.

However, this needs to be a cautious approach ensuring that user privacy is not violated. The marketing managers can only be allowed to see the final figure – no. of people who bought a product & also saw the ad. The system also needs to be engineered in such a way that no reverse engineering is possible - using "hashed identifiers" maybe.

The reason I believe that only social media platforms are capable of coming up with this kind of a technology is that ads on social platforms are primarily shown to users when they are on the platform and logged onto it – LinkedIn does show its ads on partner websites and even Facebook is in talks to do just that but Google still controls (read:owns) the display network.

For Google to follow this kind of a model would be really difficult because most users are not signed into their Gmail accounts while browsing the internet.  And Google is so concerned about user privacy that they don’t give you search keyword data for searches made when an individual is logged into his Gmail account! Google+ is the answer perhaps.  For someone like Yahoo, they show all their ads on their site but they just don’t have enough data! I mean, my profile name on the website is Rohit – just imagine the number of Rohits in India - I can tell you there are millions in my city! One of my colleagues has an id that is “GirlyPink” – Surely she is not giving that Id out at the point of sale :)

In my opinion, this seems the way forward for display advertising – being social. The winners will be platforms with authentic data and the ones which can strike a balance between user privacy and brand integration.