Overview of Ad Council Research & Evaluation Procedures

The central focus of the Ad Council’s mission is to make a measurable difference in society. Partnering with leading advertising agencies as well as sponsoring non-profit organizations and federal government agencies, we conduct qualitative and quantitative research to guide the strategic and creative development of our campaigns. 

Program evaluation is also a critical component of every Ad Council campaign. In order to assess a campaign’s impact, we conduct research that encompasses a dashboard of indicators, including media exposure, consumer response, website analytics, and national pre- and post tracking surveys that measure awareness, attitudinal and behavioral shifts among the target audience.

Strategic Research

For every Ad Council campaign, extensive research is conducted during its earliest phases of development. The goal of this research is to garner insights to inform an effective communications strategy.

Literature review: After being briefed on the issue by the campaign sponsor, we then conduct an extensive literature review, focusing on the nature and scope of the issue, other communications programs that have addressed the issue, and the most current empirical and public opinion studies.

Buzz Measurement: As social media platforms have become a key node of public conversations, we increasingly utilize buzz measurement tools to scour platforms like Facebook, Twitter, blogs and online forums to understand how the target audience engages with an issue online.

Exploratory research: Together with the volunteer ad agency, we conduct primary qualitative research among members of a campaign's target audience to determine how this group perceives and defines the issue, and to identify who among the target audience is most likely to act on communications related to the issue. These insights, along with the literature review, help the team to develop the campaign strategy. We employ a variety of qualitative methodologies, which may include traditional focus groups or one-on-one interviews, in-home discussion groups, ethnographies, vlogging, or other methods. We typically travel to at least 2-3 markets to ensure geographic diversity. At times, we supplement the qualitative research with a survey to test initial hypotheses or possible strategic directions among a quantitative sample.

Communications checks: After a campaign’s creative concepts have been developed and approved by the Ad Council, we return to consumers in order to gauge their response to the advertising. Here we seek to learn whether the work will be effective in gaining the target audience’s attention, conveying the main message, and persuading the audience to take action. This research can also help us determine the most effective concept among competing ideas. The research is usually qualitative in nature, typically a series of focus groups in several markets. Consumers are exposed to the advertising concepts in rough format (storyboards, scripts, etc.) and asked for their feedback.

Post-launch Assessment

Tracking Study: The Ad Council conducts a national tracking survey of the target audience in order to gauge trends overtime. To understand pre- and post- campaign launch trends, the survey is implemented prior to the release of each campaign and remains infield on a continuous basis.  Measures include awareness of the issue, recognition of the advertising, and relevant attitudes and behaviors. While improvements in awareness and favorable attitudes are important, the gold standard for campaign assessment is usually a statistically significant increase in the desired behavior, as self-reported by the target audience. For many studies, we conduct continuous monthly surveys of the target audience, employing online methodology. For campaigns with audiences that are more difficult to reach, we conduct point-in-time tracking surveys every six-to-12 months, employing either online or telephone interview methodology.  

The Ad Council assesses each campaign’s ROI using a variety of metrics which fall into four basic categories:

  • Exposure
  • Awareness
  • Engagement
  • Impact

Exposure: Since we do not buy any media time or space, the Ad Council provides quarterly estimates of a campaign’s donated media support. We employ several monitoring services to track media outlets’ support, including TV, radio, web, newspaper, magazine, out-of-home and alternative media vehicles. Based on monitoring service reports and self-reports from some media companies, we are able to estimate the number of ad placements donated to a particular campaign, the impressions generated, and the monetary value of each of these placements. Also, we measure news media coverage generated by our public relations initiatives and events.

Awareness: The Ad Council tracking survey includes questions meant to estimate awareness of a particular campaign’s issue as well as aided recognition of campaign PSAs among the campaign’s target audience. Using response data from the survey, we are able to estimate and monitor shifts in awareness, which supplement exposure data with an estimate of how memorable our PSAs are, and to what degree the target is aware of the issue.

Engagement: Most Ad Council campaigns include a website and/or a toll-free number where consumers can get more information or become involved. We monitor website traffic trends, calls to the toll-free number, brochure requests/downloads, email sign-ups, etc. For campaigns that rely heavily on digital media we pay particular attention to sophisticated online metrics, including detailed website analytics, engagement with social media, and online buzz trends.

Impact: All Ad Council campaigns aim to influence a specific behavior such as seeking out educational support resources or adopting healthier eating habits. We use tracking data to monitor shifts in self-reported behaviors that correspond to the period of time during which our PSAs aired. In addition, we monitor external data trends from research conducted by government agencies and nonprofits that are related to an Ad Council campaign issue (e.g., childhood obesity rates, or high school dropout rates). While we often cannot connect these large data trends directly back to an Ad Council campaign, monitoring these data provides a helpful context.

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