Sunday, June 24, 2007

True OR False: Ads Don't Work On The Internet

Continuing my thoughts on marketing in a digital world...

To understand the situation, one needs to begin with a look backwards at the brief evolution of the Net in terms of Internet marketing.

Remember when banner ads were all the rage? Touted at the way to promote and advertise, they were compared to billboards, ads and other branding methods. At first, the click-thru rates were high, and investments in the standard 60 x 468 were considered de riguer for any decent webmaster.

When those lost their punch, one needed flashing and/or animated gifs. 'Movement' was deemed the best way to engage surfers. When those links pages became a swirling sea of flashing and animated banners, we quickly moved to skyscraper ads and ads placed within content rather than relegated to links pages. Their very size and prominence indicated power and deep pockets, their performance numbers were high ~ but quickly, surfers lost their interest in these too.

We were then told to forget about banners and branding and directed to buy keywords and start affiliate programs. Without really saying so, at least not directly admitting 'why' this was so, we were told banners didn't work. Pay per click and pay for performance models were better than spots based on time limits or impressions.

Next it was SEO. Text links (or 'hard links'), we were told, were far better because this was more powerful in feeding search engines. We were also told that surfers wanted or at least reacted to text links.

Along the way we've been told and coached that low click-thru rates are the norm. To make the most of the numbers game, to make that low percent a high number of clicks, we now are told to covet social networking linkage. No matter what the context, get linked there ~ it's where the cool kids are! So what if the rate is low, the percent of clicks nominal and conversions an even smaller percentage, we should settle for them because that's just the way it is.

But that's not 'just the way it is.' Or at least few are examining why it is that way.

When you look at the past, patters emerge. All these web promotions began with great results and then were dumped in favor of the next new thing. This isn't so surprising. Early adopters have better (the best) success rates. Innovators usually do. But their are other assumptions being made here which should be looked at.

The belief that once the numbers are low, the whole thing should be scrapped is a bit foolish. It's like throwing the baby out with the bath water, for Pete's sake. I'm not saying we should settle for low numbers and poor performances, but while we need to keep our companies and marketing campaigns out of the red, we cannot view things as simplistically as black or white. There are shades of grey (such as branding) and perhaps more importantly, one should look at why these campaigns failed.

There are many possible reasons for this: poorly created ads, poorly targeted ads, poor products/companies, companies with such large PR problems that ads are rendered useless, companies with such big profiles (saturation points) that ads are not relevant (at least in terms of triggering a click response), are just a few.

A popular assumption is that Internet advertising has failed (or has very low performance numbers) because Internet users bore easily and tire quickly of the ads. There's some merit to this, but I don't just think it's short attention spans.

Another popular assumption is that no one has either found the right way to implement ads (from a mechanism or technological point of view) or discovered a way to appeal to Internet users, as if we are some different species of human. To some extent Internet users are different than non-Internet users. But only in the same ways that TV viewers differ from radio folks, book readers differ from movie goers ~ as a target market. (And as you know, many target markets overlap ~ the key is in knowing the essentials of your business.) We are not a whole other species.

The bottom line is that most of us, Internet users or not, are tired and unresponsive to ads in general.

With cultural shifts towards skepticism and unethical business practices only adding to this mindset, this new medium and the citizens which virtually live in it aren't going to fall for the same old tricks. It's not just the novelty of 'new' which they/we tire of, it's the whole advertising system.

People today are bombarded by ads; and we are, by and large, OK with that. Call us practical, call us jaded, we understand the economics of companies selling things. We don't mind it. We don't mind it so much we tune it out most of the time.

The few things we do remember about ads is how they talk down to us, how they think we are incapable of thinking and researching for ourselves, and perhaps most of all, how companies, despite having copious amounts of information about us, do not know us at all.

We aren't so much offended by advertising as we are by how companies talk to us and about us.

Where the proverbial shit hits the fan with regards to the Internet is not that we are a new species, but that we are more vocal. This comes from a combination of factors. One, our youth, which generally brings with it more of an outspoken nature. Two, the fact that (duh) this new medium doesn't just 'allow' for interaction but is built upon it. So Internet users will speak out and loudly about idiot campaigns ~ and the companies which use them.

This is good news.

A smart marketer will spend time listening to what people are saying, especially to those groups they feel best represent their customers and potential customers, and put that information into use.

Does that mean ads don't work? No... Not entirely.

The real changes here are the new medium which presents new challenges in presentation and monetization, and the cultural shift to skepticism which is admittedly both affected by the Internet ~ as well as using the Internet to further drive and voice the shift. The good news is that we can not only use the Internet to see what works, what doesn't, and what's going on in our target market, but that we can find this all out rather quickly. If we are willing to listen and collect information, examine what we see and hear, and put it into use.

Subscribe to The Marketing Whore Newsletter and you'll get my ideas on ads and marketing campaigns that do work.

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