Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
October 3, 2011 9:34 PM

Online Advertising's Greatest Trick

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.

The greatest trick online advertising ever pulled was convincing the world that a direct response didn't exist. Do you remember when we called them "banner ads"? You don't hear them called that anymore. Most new media professionals call them "display advertising." Why? When people think of banner advertising, they think of the early days of online advertising and the promise that people like me (and many of my peers) brought to the media mix. That promise? Finally, we have an ad unit that we can truly measure. We can measure it in terms of impressions served, people who clicked on them and then what they did (the point of conversion). We can also target those ads to the exact spaces that the brand wanted... as niche as we could go (even down to a keyword!). In essence, we had a true advertising unit. One we could measure from the cradle to the grave and it was going to change the world.

Whoops.

It turned out that the general public didn't necessarily fall in love with banner advertising. Yes, we can blame things like technology and the limitations of both serving and delivering a message with impact. Yes, we can blame the online publisher's for cluttering pages with way too many of these messages in way too many different formats. Yes, we can blame the creatives for pushing banners that asked us to punch a monkey or the ones that were blinking to the point of inducing spasms. Whoever you blame, banner advertising stiffed. And yet, in all of that, banner advertising is still one of the leading online marketing opportunities for Marketers to this day. With billions of eyeballs online, why not just prop up a banner ad on a page to get noticed? Who cares if it generates a click or an action? In fact, maybe a banner ad is all about the branding effect? It was this line of thinking that propelled the industry to pull a PR spin and change the name from "banner advertising" to "display advertising."

Does online advertising deliver a true branding effect?

It seems like the clicks and conversations that we typically used to measure online advertising efficacy aren't as important as the more basic metric of impressions served. This is an interesting shift/trend. Late last week, MediaPost, ran the news item, Display Advertising Shifts From Direct Response To Branding Media. The title alone is enough to terrify the more traditional online marketers (and yes, I include myself in this lot). If the impetus for advertising online is branding instead of a direct response, where does this leave us? According to the news item: "The Digital Advertising 2011: A Portrait of Conflict study released by Collective finds that 57% of agencies believe the majority of their display objectives are to build the brand, yet only 11% cite ad creative as critical to the campaign's success. Still, 60% of agencies cite brand recall and intent to purchase as the most important measures of online success. However, clicks and conversions remain the key criteria agencies say they use to evaluate media, according to the Collective study."

Are the brands just kidding themselves?

If the brands only care about building brand through brand recall and intent to purchase, why even care about metrics like the clickthrough rate and/or conversions? Why not stand up and say, "online advertising is all about blasting a message in front of people's eyeballs!" Much in the same way a billboard, magazine ad or TV ad interrupts the media experience? The challenge and sorrow that I feel is that it can be used for something so much more. Look at Google AdWords as an example: the advertising compliments, is valuable and doesn't interfere with the overall content experience. While I understand that display advertising has both underperformed and was then been pushed to the point where bigger and bigger takeover ads completely interfered with the user experience, I'm not sure that consumers have to accept this as a gateway to free content.

We can do better. 

This is an amazing time to be a marketing professional. We have a tremendous opportunity. Right here. Right now. We can decide that display advertising can be better. It's up to us. If we don't, we let the traditional marketers win. We let mass media win. We allow them to simply blast messages in every nook and cranny of the Web as if it just another mass media channel. In fact, the greatest trick that online advertising could ever pull is to convince the world that great advertising can exist.

...And it should.

By Mitch Joel


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