Online Advertising: The Big Slow Sell

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Getting Creative
Despite its manifest unique selling propositions, the fact of the matter is that Web advertising at many content sites seems to attract media buyers best when it mimics the immersiveness and intrusiveness of offline advertising. One of the few success stories in an otherwise dreary 2001 was the stunning rise and acceptance by publishers and users alike of novel ad formats. The oversized and Flash-enabled rectangles, large skyscrapers, pop-overs, pop-unders, and various kinds of superimposed animation ads that started proliferating in early 2001 made sense to advertisers because, in many ways. they looked and felt like familiar print or TV spots.

Jupiter Media Metrix compared the popularity of ad sizes in January 2001 versus January 2002 and found that while banner impressions increased 74%, large format squares, rectangles, and skyscrapers increased 542%. Skyscrapers, which have become the ad format darling of late, increased 1,835%. The good news is that the numbers suggest that these ads do deliver better branding and direct response results for advertisers, and for publishers they help keep CPM rates reasonable. Indeed, many ad sales executives tell us that larger formats are retaining their value even six to twelve months after their introduction. According to Rich Gotham, vice president of U.S. Sales, Lycos, "$40-$50 CPMs seem to be what the market is willing to bear for increased real estate."

Despite this buzz of activity around new ad formats, for most sites ad revenue is a stream that requires careful tending…and a little priming. Most of the publishers who have viable and robust online ad businesses somehow get involved in the creative process. Sites like Meredith's BHG. com (Better Homes & Gardens), AOL Time Warner's EW.com (Entertainment Weekly), CNet's Edmunds.com, and iVillage are exceptionally proactive in that they bring to advertisers and agencies detailed demos, recommended marketing plans and, in some cases, full-blown design services. Some publishers do this simply to help clients understand better what can be done online. But others, like iVillage CEO Doug McCormick, are up front about the superior performance of ads that agencies develop with his team. "When the creative is controlled by iVillage, the results from the advertising go up five times [over] the online average in terms of intent to purchase."

Other publishers shy away from offering design help, fearing it will alienate agencies. In fact, Jupiter Media Metrix analyst Marissa Gluck warned recently that publishers will ultimately lose any fight over creative budgets and, in the process, only bite the hand that feeds them. "Media businesses will find themselves unable to compete over the long term. Beware the wrath of the agencies—they will forgive (for now), but not forget."

In other words, making the ad model work online (and it must if the Web is to survive as a media platform), will be a long, slow haul that involves much more than waiting for advertisers to be convinced by research studies about the value of the medium. It will require that publishers show clients explicitly what the Web has, can, and will deliver for their campaign. It may even require designing the campaign itself.

To paraphrase Lord Asquith. We're all marketing consultants now.

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