It's a question that's been posed since the dawn of the commercial web: Is the internet, long a stronghold for direct marketing, any good for brand advertising?
"The question has always been whether brand advertising really works online and whether that money has ever really migrated online," observes Steve Smith, columnist and digital media editor for Media Industry Newsletter (min), and a consultant to web publishers and interactive ad agencies.
"It's the basic advertisers' question that's been asked and argued about now for a decade. It still hasn't been answered, and you still have all aspects of the advertising economy chasing this brand dollar," continues Smith.
Smith says that the internet has "still generally been seen as an extremely successful direct marketing vehicle but one that has not attracted, as well as it has always wanted to, what are called the big brand marketing dollars-the stuff that generally goes to television."
Sean Gelles, director, social media insights and analytics at Univision Communications, Inc., feels differently. "It's not that brand marketing doesn't work online; it's that the current ad opportunities aren't effective. And this has been going on awhile, which is why people are sort of getting impatient," observes Gelles. "If we think about where branding online began, it began with the banner ad. The problem with banner ads is that people don't notice them. There's actually been quite a bit of research on this, but people don't really notice banner ads."
Gelles notes that the internet is an experience that plays on many senses and includes sound, text, images, and moving images. "If you compare it to any other medium, it's more like TV than anything else we have seen," he says. "So I think we need to think about the branding opportunities more along the lines of the way we think about television, and we would never put a banner ad on TV or anything like a banner ad. There are banner ads that are more effective and those are the ones that have rich media."
Gary Capreol, senior vice president and director of media and analytics at ad agency Cronin and Co., LLC points to increased online ad spending when asked if the internet is a good venue for brand advertising, "I'm a very numbers-oriented, factual-based person, and everything I read shows that online is growing: Online spending is growing, and there has been an influx in the branding side of things as well," says Capreol.
"The different types of units that can be used and implemented on websites are becoming bigger and more impactful and more engaging," adds Capreol. "Rich media, video, and the advent of HTML5 across different platforms are going to go a long way in helping online advertising become more impactful and creative, which is going to go a long way for branding."
According to Gelles, most of the digital ad spending is still devoted to direct response tactics. "Overall, marketers spend about 60% on branding and 30% on direct response; the opposite is true for digital media," he says. "One would expect the digital marketing spend split between branding and direct response to eventually reflect the overall split, but right now it doesn't."
Beyond Banners: Earned Media
For any form of advertising to be effective from a branding perspective, it needs to catch a consumer's attention, notes Gelles. "Research has shown that as long as you have an advertisement or some kind of publicity content, whether it be earned or paid publicity, as long as the content is noticeable and it reaches the right audience then it's effective for branding," he says.
Gelles notes that earned media-also known as free media-can be a big boon for branding efforts. "I think we are starting to see a change, and what we are seeing is that earned media is proving to be much more of a powerful brand marketing tool than paid media," he says.
According to The Nielson Co.'s 2012 report, "Global Trust in Advertising and Brand Messages," 92% of consumers around the world say they trust earned media-including word-of-mouth and recommendations from friends and family-over all other forms of advertising.
"That's where earned media comes in. Because when someone who is a friend of yours sends you a video, you're probably going to look at it," says Gelles. "And, I think one of the really great campaigns I've seen lately is the Toyota One and Only campaign."
Toyota's One and Only campaign includes an original web series starring South Korean actor Lee Min Ho and featuring the Toyota Camry. "It's an actual series and it has actual episodes, and these are basically three to five minute advertisements for the Toyota Camry," says Gelles. "They're very cleverly done; there are a lot of shots of the car. There's no way you can watch these and not know this is an ad for the Toyota Camry, but it's so entertaining and so well done that nobody cares. People watch it anyway."
This type of advertising can be "even more compelling than TV advertising," says Gelles. "Because, most of the time, the person sharing this with you is your friend; this is being distributed organically by people with their friends and families, and I think that's where the real sort of power of online comes in-the whole social aspect that's sort of built into online media."
Earned media often has its roots in the burgeoning and ever-buzzing world of social media. And social media ad spending is surging, according to web design firm GO-Gulf, which notes that in 2013, 64% of advertisers plan to increase their social media advertising budget.
In terms of the primary objective of social media advertisers, 45% say branding is their ultimate goal while just 16% will focus on direct response efforts, adds GO-Gulf. In addition, estimated global social media ad revenue is expected to increase from $7.72 billion in 2012 to $10.24 billion in 2013 and then up to $11.87 billion in 2014, according to GO-Gulf.
Positive word-of-mouth advertising-such as that gained from social media-remains "very powerful" when it comes to online branding, according to Capreol. "That's what you want; you want a brand advocate," he says. "The ultimate goal is to have brand advocates talk about your brand and recommend your brand-and that's the power of social media."