Online Advertising: The Big Slow Sell

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In the advertising world, when the going gets tough, the tough start hyping. When agencies and publishers started seeing their revenues tank in early 2001, they responded with an unprecedented barrage of flashy new ad formats and research study after research study trumpeting the undiscovered value of online promotion. Like a carny barker hawking a miracle kitchen tool, Webvertising has been selling itself silly all year. Lookee, lookee! It brands, it sells, it targets, it personalizes! It goes one to one with your customer…it slices, it dices, it helps the kids with their homework, and opens a bottle of beer.

For publishers, there is a genuine frustration at the heart of this exercise. In talking with content company CEOs over the past year, I hear a constant lament: our share of the overall ad spending pot isn't even remotely proportionate to the size of our media mind-share. We have successfully diverted considerable user attention from magazines, newspapers, and TV, they rightly argue, but ad dollars and the "blue chip" clients that spend them have not followed user eyeballs onto the Web. The sorry stats for 2001 bear this out. By all accounts, the Web truly spun itself deeply into people's lives last year, becoming a routine part of Americans' news and information gathering, product research, and especially interpersonal communication. Nevertheless, online ad spending declined 14.7%, according to CMRi. Even factoring in the disastrous year for advertising in every medium, that is not a good number for a platform that claims to be so woefully undervalued. An obvious question emerges: has any of the hype and hoopla, the research and the in-your-face ad formats, not to mention the endless stream of IAB press conferences and PowerPoint presentations, done anything to budge the needle on advertiser attitudes toward the Web? In talking to publishers, reps, and researchers, the answer seems to be a resounding "Well, maybe, kinda, but not by much."

Beating the Bad
Rep All indicators point to online advertising continuing to face a long, hard sell job. For instance, research firms like Dynamic Logic and Millward Brown pumped out reams of reports for the IAB and others last year about the branding power of the Web. They claimed to show that even the much-maligned banner ad could "lift" brand awareness for a product noticeably with smart positioning and frequency. Did all these stats change any minds? "Opinion-wise, some but not a lot," says Paul Debraccio, CEO of consultancy and ad rep firm InteractiveRevenue.com. "The major clients like the P&Gs and the Krafts and their agencies all seem to be concerned about metrics to convince them to allocate more money to [online] advertising."

"It's still a hard sell for branding," says Bill McCloskey, CEO and founder of Emerging Interest, a rich media consultancy. "For the most part, the people who are dealing with online advertising are very direct response-oriented." In fact, overall confidence in online advertising's heft, let alone the numbers it regularly spews at press conferences remains relatively low, according to an IntelliSurvey study done for Internet Profiles Corporation. In a poll of ad execs, 75% of whom already spend some money online, only 25% considered the Web an "extremely: or "very effective" ad vehicle. Considering that this number badly trails TV (75%), print (51%), and radio (44%), publishers obviously have their work cut out for them. And when it comes to value, the news is just as bad because only 16% of ad suits felt the Internet offered the best ROI, again trailing TV (33%), print (31%), and radio (20%).

Part of the problem is that many clients and agencies just don't trust any of the numbers that get thrown at them from sites and reps. Media buyers want "standardization of research and standardization of branding studies," says Debraccio. "Until those issues are rectified, the blue chip advertisers are going to continue to keep their budgets in check." The IntelliSurvey poll showed that 72% of agency executives felt that measurement standards would make the medium more effective, by far the leading issue for them.

The problem with this torrent of ad effectiveness studies is that they exist in a vacuum; they don't compare online effectiveness to other platforms. This ignores the real world of most media buyers in which ad money isn't spent so much as reallocated. Clients need just cause to take money away from other, tried and tested media. Which is why McCloskey thinks that the recent joint study by the Advertising Research Bureau, the IAB, Unilever, and MSN represents an important breakthrough "that seems to have had quite a bit of buzz in the industry." In essence, the year-long study found that a TV and radio campaign for the Dove nutrition bar produced a greater lift in brand awareness when some spending was reallocated to a complementary online campaign rather than invested in additional offline advertising. McCloskey praises the approach because "it wasn't talking about whether online advertising can increase a metric, but it had more to do with reallocation of current resources."

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