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The Problem with Internet Advertising

Thomas Ordahl
The Problem with Internet Advertising Thomas Ordahl

Why does the most sophisticated communications technology suffer the most primitive forms of advertising? Internet banner ads are little more than billboards flashing at us with garish, distracting messages. Pop-ups are like carnival callers trying to muscle you into their show. Spam is the door-to-door salesman that can only be gotten rid of with a shotgun. Except in a few cases, Internet advertising seems at best desperate and at worst antagonistic.

Here's one explanation: Internet advertising hasn’t figured out how to adapt to the usage behaviors of the medium. Advertising in every other medium fits with how people use the medium. TV watching is passive. The couch potato wants to relax and be amused without having to think too hard. TV commercials suit that expectation with humor and pretty pictures. Print advertising varies to the nature of the publication. For a fashion magazine it’s all about great imagery while in a serious magazine the message is in the content -- advertorials, for example, that mimic magazine articles. Radio advertising relies on dialog and catchy jingles to hold our attention.

In each medium the approach to advertising has adapted to the posture of the audience. For print we want to read, for radio we want to listen, and for TV we want to be amused. So what do we want online?

We want control. We want to be in command of our experience. Search is the most common Web activity because we go online with purpose. Usability is high-art in Web design because we are intolerant of anything that might confuse or disorient us. Researchers minutely observe online reading habits -- noting how we scan the page and quickly disregard useless or unwanted information -- because online merchants discovered (the hard way) that online, we are a highly impatient bunch.

One of the most unique benefits of the Web is that it gives individuals tremendous autonomy and freedom. This undermines, fundamentally, traditional approaches to advertising.

Advertising always has been a blunt instrument. Audiences typically are broad and difficult to define. Media buyers use demographics, focus groups, tracking studies and the like to try to calibrate to whom they deliver their message, but in the end it is still more art then science.

In any particular TV audience, only a few will have an immediate need or interest in the product being advertised. This is why every television commercial is, to some degree, a mixture of substance and amusement. The television audience is willing to view irrelevant content as long as it’s entertaining enough.

But on the Web, we are purposeful.

Viewing irrelevant content -- entertaining or otherwise -- is antithetical to the reasons we are there. And yet Internet advertising keeps resorting to the challenge in the way that worked in the past -- it gets more creative. Banner ads deliver games. Pop-ups respond to blockers by becoming “floaters.” The industry prays for greater broadband adoption so television commercials can be streamed online. In advertising, traditionally, great creative could always come to the rescue.

Now think about the last time you went to Google. Do you remember advertising? Probably not. There are no banners, pop-ups, images, or animations. The advertising is totally unremarkable, uncreative and uninteresting and yet Google is very successful at selling advertising. Google strives for relevance. It serves an ad only when it knows something about your interests -- that’s why there’s no advertising on the home page. Google met the essential challenge -- how to advertise without bothering their customers -- by adapting to, rather than fighting, the use of the medium. They accepted that audiences want to be in control of their experience while exploiting a new advantage. They know what their customers are looking for and looking at.

Another example is Industry Brains, an advertising network that is selling ad placement according to specific vertical content categories. By targeting messages to the context of the content (or search), advertising can be useful and meaningful in that moment.

While contextual placement is only one way of adapting to the medium, it suggests a broader implication for the future of advertising on the Web: if all advertising is a mixture of entertainment and relevance, then online, the balance must shift to relevance.

Online people demand control and control, after all, is really just about getting what you want -- and only what you want.

Thomas Ordahl is  director, interactive practice for Siegel & Gale.

Behavioral fingerprinting is not the subject of an episode of "CSI: Miami." It's a technique that sounds complex but is actually fairly simple. By fairly simple, I mean that it can be executed easily today without much in the way of strategic planning on the marketing or agency side.

The basic idea is to identify your customers and prospects and look to commonalities in their behavioral profiles. You can do this by tagging your website and having your favorite behavioral marketing company identify the intersection between your site's customers and people on whom they've collected behavioral data.

Some obvious behaviors will index highly against your customer base. You'll probably respond with a "No duh!" when your consumer electronics site's customers index well against visiting consumer electronics review sites. But some non-obvious things will also pop out at you. I'm making this up, but you might notice a propensity for gardening, or leisure travel. These tendencies become part of a behavioral fingerprint that can now be used to target people elsewhere on the web.

I first saw this actually executed in the CPG category with Yahoo!'s Consumer Direct program. While your marketing intuition might be telling you that behavior that is not directly related to your business might not have any bearing on whether or not someone is an ideal customer, I can tell you it has significant impact. The lift in metrics associated with targeting customers in this fashion is well worth the cost of developing the fingerprint and deploying it across the web to identify prospects.

Although Yahoo has been able to prove success with this fingerprinting method for years now, there's no reason why behavioral networks or other sites employing behavioral targeting technology can't be successful in employing the tactic. As with most behavioral targeting programs, the returns increase with scale, so look for high potential reach and critical mass when putting together a fingerprinting program.

As much as we might have wanted to believe it in the early days of behavioral targeting, it's simply not true that every application of behavioral marketing we thought of at the time was immediately executable or effective. It takes time for sites and networks to build scale, and it also takes time to fine-tune technology and learn what techniques produce quantifiable results that justify the added cost of the time and effort put into behavioral programs.

While we're not even close to realizing the full potential of online behavioral targeting, we're significantly closer to realizing that potential than we were just a few years ago. The trick is separating reality from fantasy. I hope that with the descriptions of the four tactics I've outlined in this piece, I've given you an idea of what is realistic today.

Faster = better, better = faster, faster + better = the new standard
For a lot of big brands today, a well-considered web marketing campaign can take six weeks just to tune the messaging. Sample messages are sent, results are analyzed, and messages are tweaked. Then the process repeats. What emerges is pretty solid messaging -- assuming the market hasn't moved on in the meantime. More resources won't make it go faster because the serial process is the constraint.

Think of this as the static model of advertising.

The static model can't keep up with today's fast-moving trends. Fortunately, within reach is a new approach that can accomplish in days or hours what used to take weeks. Welcome to real-time advertising. Where more money can't compress the static model schedule, the real-time model inherently compresses both time and money. 

Putting this level of capability into action takes more than new technology and tools; it takes new thinking regarding risk, objectives, and measurement.

  1. Risk
    The static model is carefully and methodically tuned to minimize downside risk because few brands can afford a big failure. At the same time, there is little upside in overachieving to those supporting the brand. (Not really a recipe for game-changing behavior.)

    If you want to change the game, you have to change the rules. Near real-time development combined with real-time data encourages lots of short experiments rather than fewer big ones.  Managing the downside risk need not be a function of cautiousness. Real-time data and control means a campaign can be terminated at any time.  Brands can now do and try things they would never have dreamed off before. The economics also are changing to reward upside performance as well. The combination is going to rock the advertising world from top to bottom and everywhere in-between.  But you have to play by the new rules.

  2. Objectives
    The new rules are going to drive new thinking throughout the planning and execution process. This extends beyond the how to the why.  With new ways to engage customers with fast-acting, interactive campaigns, everyone from the brand manager, to the creative director, to the media buyer must be re-aligned in how they work together.

  3. Measurement
    Traditional metrics only tell us that we've touched someone. The new standard of engagement calls for new measures as well. New types of engagement measures allow us to differentiate between eyeballs and true engagement.

Better data ultimately drives better decisions. To leverage the new data, however, we need to re-think the overall process of how campaigns are developed and deployed.

There is also a qualitative component to good decisions. Social media expert Tara Hunt likes to point out that social capital is what makes online communities flourish, not money. Those that help you strum the social graph are very conscious that their tweet or stream of your content needs to build their social capital or they won't engage with you. Use data to understand when and how people are engaging with your content in ways that continues the conversation. If you are getting eyeballs, but not this type of engagement, it's time to shut it down and try something else.

Anatomy of a successful social media campaign
Since the goal of social media campaigns is to engage with people in ways that benefit a particular brand, traditional metrics like impressions and conversion rates fall short. If we want to encourage viral conversations, we need to find better metrics. The better you can measure what people actually do after the initial contact, the more you know about what actually works in the social graph. The better you know what actually works, the better direction you can provide to the creative director in terms of target audience, preferred media, and actionable campaigns. 

With knowledge of the campaign's objectives, the next stop for the brand owner ought to be the media buyer. The data-driven media buyer is a tremendous resource that should be engaged early in the process and long before the creative is spec'd out. Since what works for a print ad is very different from what works for a social media campaign, engaging the media buyer and/or publisher early in the process lets the creative director work within a tighter focus.

Gartner echoes this but from the perspective of media companies, advising them to build core disciplines around understanding and predicting consumer trends by mining social media.

The media buyer knows what works and how much it costs. If social media is included, the media buyer can select the appropriate platform and set requirements and expectations. Platform capabilities are constantly evolving, so the media buyer is likely to loop the platform into the process. Since the media buyer is going to need metrics around the specific activities the campaign targets, these will get baked into the requirements as well. Requirements and expectations developed this way allow the creative process to serve the practical goals of the campaign.

One of the interesting developments is that a few (soon to be many) media buyers are demanding performance guarantees… and getting agreement.

Here's how it works and why it makes sense:

Big Brand is running a campaign to where users create a customized ensemble using a Flash application. They are willing to pay $250,000, but only if they are assured that they will get 75,000 people to engage with the application, or $3.33 per user. They drive a hard bargain. They want people who take the time to complete an ensemble.

These days, it makes sense to say OK. My company, for example, drives traffic to the application with paid placements, paying distributors per user. This is pretty traditional except for the development savings -- but that savings already puts us ahead. Where we win big is that many of the initial users will recommend the campaign to friends, either by forwarding a personalized widget, or posting it in activity feeds for friends to see. Not only is this a deeper level of engagement -- so Big Brand is happy -- but we don’t pay to recruit these additional users. Our profit increases because Big Brand pays for additional completes that we source for "free." The greater the viral leverage, the bigger the upside is for both Big Brand and us.

Example 1

Making your own serendipity: increasing the odds that your campaign goes viral
No one can predict the next viral campaign. Historically, viral campaigns generally turn on a fluke of some sort. A campaign planned over six months that serendipitously reflects a breaking news event is great, but can you increase your chances of being in the right place at the right time? Have you ever had a great idea for a campaign, but it would only work if you could do it now?

Real-time advertising capabilities won't necessarily make your ideas successful, but for the first time it makes them actionable -- and at little cost or risk. A hypothetical example will make the point.

In October 2008, a disgruntled Iraqi legislator threw his shoes at President Bush during a visit to Baghdad. The story made news worldwide, largely because the quirkiness of the "attack."

Image yourself as a brand manager for specialty shoe maker Shoe Co. Within hours of waking up to the news, you use the Sprout Platform to deploy an interactive, Flash-based widget, and an engaging social media application that allows users to "throw" shoes at a world leader of their choice.  Users get to:

  • Choose from a selection of world leaders

  • Upload their own face as the thrower

  • Choose from a selection of shoes to throw

Users make their selections, throw a few shoes at their preferred target, and then are encouraged to forward it to their friends. The level of interactivity drives viral adoption, and within hours the news coverage shifts from the original incident to how your campaign is sweeping the internet.

For a very small investment, the brand manager succeeded in:

  • Getting tons of free publicity for Shoe Co.

  • Subtly exposing enormous numbers of people to the Shoe Co. brand for an average of 5-8 minutes. Reports tell how many people engaged, for how long, and how many forwarded it to friends or added it to their Facebook stream. The brand manager can also see demographic data on participants (via Google analytics and from social networks) so they know who the key influencers are on social networks.

  • Reinforcing the quirky, non-conformist personality of Shoe Co. in ways millions of dollars in advertising couldn't match.

  • Gaining real-time insights into user reactions by monitoring campaign reporting, Twitter, and similar services. The brand manager can even update the campaign in real-time in response to the buzz.

  • Managing their risk because if it didn't take off -- or worse yet, created a negative reaction – the brand manager could have pulled the campaign before it got wide awareness. 

While this story is hypothetical, the premise is completely plausible and all the required services and tools are commercially available today. Even if Shoe Co. had to buy paid placements to initiate the campaign, the viral leverage makes the overall cost extremely attractive.

Example 2

How the new thinking trumps the old ways
A leading movie studio came to us to create an engagement campaign to reward the 500,000 fans of the film on Facebook. The community had been building since the release of the first movie of the series in 2001. But there was low activity in the group and little evidence they were doing more than just becoming fans of the movie and then leaving the page. There was no way to harness this group and help them spread their love of the movie online.

The studio didn't have a clear idea of what it wanted. The studio reps knew they wanted to give their fans a fun, branded experience but didn't assign goals for the campaign since they saw it as a loyalty versus awareness campaign. They didn't do a marketing spend against the campaign since it wasn’t meant to drive awareness or do more than give existing fans something fun to do.

At the same time, they were spending 25-50 percent of their marketing dollars on social media sites, but with traditional online ads and takeover ads. They used the static model to reach and engage fans, even though they had the tools to do more.

The campaign we rolled out allowed fans to customize their favorite car, add music, videos and photos from the film, or the fan’s collection, and share the personalized widget with friends to see and share on leading social networks.

The results impressed the studio’s creative team. By the time the movie launched, about 60,000 people visited the campaign. There was a 26 percent conversion rate, meaning that more than a quarter of the people who entered the campaign portal published a personalized widget on either their Facebook or MySpace page for their friends to see. What’s more, the average engagement time for the 38,000 people that entered the campaign was almost two minutes.

The other online media that the studio placed performed at a far more "industry standard" rate. There’s no doubt that more money spent driving traffic to the engagement campaign would have made it even more effective, since each activity spurs more friend activity when the widget is posted. Traditional media can’t come close to a 25 percent response, and it can’t spur viral activity.

Best practices
Economics are changing for both brands and agencies.  Brands need to do more with less because recessions are no time to go dark and let your customers stray. In fact, recessions are a great opportunity to build share and awareness, so smart brands are looking to do more -- even if they don't have a bigger overall budget to work with. In practical terms, more with less means that agencies get squeezed, and media buyers have to show concrete results rather the soft metrics such as CPM or page views. Activities are a flexible and extremely useful metric for measuring social media engagement.

With clear objectives from the brand, savvy media buyers are ascending in dominance because they are best positioned to help agencies design focused and effective social media campaigns that guarantee results.

Guaranteeing results is all about leverage and data. Actually making money with a guarantee is about driving engagement and leveraging the interconnectedness of the social graph -- and then being able to measure the results.

Below are eight best practices that will help ensure you get the most from your social media campaigns. These are above and beyond the basic rules of working with social media, such as don't talk down at people, be honest, tell a story, etc.

  1. Use the right metrics by measuring the activities that represent the type(s) of engagement you seek. If you want people to spread the word, then good metrics are posts to social networks, forwards, streams and activity feeds, tweets, etc. If the goal is brand affinity, use metrics that measure length of engagement and number of activities.

  2. Bake data and metrics into the early planning stages. If you can't define the metrics, you shouldn't be talking creative yet.

  3. Leverage the media buyer to help define the creative.

  4. Guaranteed engagement pricing models align the interests of brand and agency.  Alignment is a prerequisite for doing more with less.

  5. Plan for quicker and more frequent campaigns. Social media users are fickle, trend-driven, and shift focus faster than static model planning cycles can follow.

  6. Be prepared to turn on a dime. The technology available today allows you to develop and manage campaigns in real-time. But can you keep up?

  7. If it's not working, cut your losses rather than waiting for overwhelming or "final" data.

  8. Be viral-ready. No one can guarantee a viral campaign, but it's your job to be ready when serendipity strikes, or better yet, manufacture your own serendipity.

The effectiveness of social media campaigns are changing dramatically as new technologies and thinking empower brand managers, media buyers, and creative directors to do more with less, compared to traditional campaigns.  In addition, they engage in ways that traditional campaigns simply can't. The know-how, tools, and program design is within reach to regularly "strum" the social graph to maintain nearly continuous engagement with the target audience.

Carnet Williams is the founder and CEO of Sprout.

We've gotten so comfortable with our old ideas about marketing that we let this one slip by, but it's a whopper: Brands don't exist, at least not like rocks or tax returns. Brands are ideas that have no external existence or legitimacy apart from the creative agency of human experience. Brands aren't things but rather conclusions, and therefore have no voice, reputation, attributes, or actions that aren't the result of somebody doing something (or something happening to them).

When we track brand perceptions or awareness, we're really taking snapshots of moments in time, and it supports a really old-fashioned, analog way of understanding branding as something that will sometime, somehow make people do something. Every assumption of what those measurements mean a minute, hour, or week after we last checked is less a causal link and more an inferential hope. There are no brands separate from people thinking about brands.

This should make it impossible for your brand to talk to consumers. People can do things because of a brand idea, and in its support or to its detriment, but they can only talk about your brand, not with it. It's what they always did, only now social media channels are an immensely powerful enabler of deeper, wider, and more frequent conversations. Changing your fundamental definition of how you approach your branding would change not only how you use social media, but also repurpose all of your marketing communications to make every interaction an opportunity for individuals to say things about your brand.

Nope. It's not inherently anything, and never has been. Considering the qualities of time and effort required to conduct them, conversations actually come with a cost, whether obvious or not. And, of course, conversation isn't something new: People have been conversing since the first "oog" and "argh" were uttered in the Stone Age. More recently, marketers maintained ongoing conversations with their customers through whatever mediating tools were available to them, starting with person-to-person exchanges and then migrating to mass-produced and electronically distributed media.

The premise that social media give you a first-ever chance to converse with your customers is silly; they're different than the broadcast tools our predecessors used in the 1950s, and their conversations might have been slow and imperfect from our perspective, but it's not like they weren't talking. Assuming otherwise, especially when combined with the assumption that brands exist, yields a lot of the volume of silly, irrelevant uses of social media. Archaic media almost necessitated that people talk to one another about brands, and to make those less frequent opportunities count for more.

What if you assumed instead that your customer conversations should have a purpose? You wouldn't use any of the common ROI measures for engagement, since having a purpose would give you outcomes that you could track (and which might correlate more directly to other outcomes and results that mattered to the business). More importantly, if there wasn't something worthy of conversation, you'd start keeping your brand mouth shut.

We assume that social media enables people to converse with brands and therefore claim "friendship" or other qualities evidencing an ongoing relationship. This assumption might be flawed also, both due to the points already discussed, and because it begs a radical rewrite of what it means to be a friend. Do any of us really think that consumers who've clicked on a Facebook page are friends of a brand, let alone participants in a community? Just because a platform provider has tagged a button or function with one term or another doesn't make it illustrative of the behavior it enables.

Friendship throughout history has been a quid pro quo relationship requiring not just interest and affection but reciprocal behaviors and real-world implications. We can talk all we want about how friendship is somehow different online, but then we should find better descriptive terms. Perhaps this is why it's really hard to convert large lists of friends/members of brand sites into consumers ("monetizing" the platforms, as it were). They're not really there, per se. And if they're fed useless entertainment when they do show up, we can expect to get back something equally valuable.

Think of the other assumptions up to this point, and consider a perspective on these platforms that didn't try to capture names or qualify them as friends, and instead used the moments of interaction as opportunities to have useful and true conversations about brands. Less friends and more engaged people, right here and right now. No new definitions required.

Customer service was an expansive term throughout most of business history, encompassing product design, sale, delivery, use, service, and replacement. Complaints were a small, though vocal point in this continuum, but the other elements were structured to preclude customer dissatisfaction; complaints were an outcome of the system functioning imperfectly, and fixing them was considered a response to the failure of customer service. Today's idea that tracking dissatisfied tweets equals serving customers turns this model on its head, with no credible substantiation for why other than, well, because the technology exists.

Two conflicting trends are at work here: While business operations have gotten leaner (cutting costs, automating, or outsourcing many of the steps on which customer satisfaction once relied), brands haven't communicated these changes -- and the resulting lowered expectations they warrant -- to consumers. They've opted instead to disappoint consumers as a business strategy, and rely on social media tools to quiet the complaints that emerge onto the mediasphere. Customer service often is seen as a function of managing complaints instead of delivering complaint-free experiences.

I wonder how differently businesses would approach online engagement if the point was to preclude service dissatisfaction. Could it be used to help get consumer expectations in better sync with the operational capabilities behind brands? Again, think about conversation as a tool for level-setting and consensus-reaching versus an absolute good, or as a channel for delivering brand messaging.

Much of the canon in support of brands providing "content" to consumers is that they don't want to receive overtly commercial messaging; they just want to talk and have relationships (see prior assumptions). Thus, a number of social media campaigns make not even the slightest presumption of trying to sell something. This could be faulty reasoning, as evidenced by the facts that consumers 1) still don't trust brands or what businesses claim, 2) brands continue to struggle to charge premium pricing for brands, and 3) consumers now are less loyal than ever before.

Businesses always provided information to the marketplace, and it varied from being somewhat to overtly commercial. But it was always clear why they did it, and they usually admitted as much in the stuff they presented. Businesses exist to sell things -- it's a simple, inescapable fact that everyone knows -- and it never occurred to past generations of communicators to claim otherwise (or try to avoid the label). Could consumers be aware of this fact still, and that's what contributes to their suspicions (in spite of how happily they're willing to engage with free, mostly worthless marketing content)?

Maybe you have to sell -- explicitly. Orient your conversations toward conclusions that involve consumers giving you their money in exchange for your products and valuable thinking in support of them. Transactions aren't something that happen separate or later on but could be a core component of how, where, and when you deliver social media campaigns. You don't need a new phrase like "social commerce" for this, since commerce has always been social. Maybe you just need to do a better job of admitting it.

Bear in mind that social media didn't cause the recent business failures or shortcomings at Old Spice, Ford, Pepsi, or Burger King. Social media also didn't prevent them, and since the thinking is so muddled and imprecise on what exactly businesses are supposed to get from those activities, it's impossible to hold social marketing responsible for much of anything that matters, good or bad.

Perhaps that's the ultimate point: Conversations, distribution lists, service, and selling aren't new ideas; they're not implicitly good or bad, and you don't need new math to measure them. Your strategy puts them to good use or not, and your approach to your brand is a core foundation of your approach. As long as we continue to apply an old, outdated definition of brand -- as some abstract idea that we use technology tools to deliver -- I worry that we're doomed to continue the mistakes of the recent past. We need to come up with new, different, bolder assumptions to drive our social media marketing strategies. Social media channels offer incredible tools and opportunities.

But I think we need to use them to start selling again, don't you think?

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist and author of "Histories of Social Media." 

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


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