As the amount of time web users spend online continues to grow, the level of sophistication they expect from their internet experience increases. The increase in premium content sites is one very clear example of this, as people are less inclined to read poorly written, ill-conceived articles. With this increase in quality content, the way users react with online ads is also changing.
As evidence of this, there has been a significant increase in custom advertisement integration into sites, compared to traditional IAB units. These range from overlays and site and page takeovers to custom integrated polls and sponsorships of site sections, microsites, and the content itself. Moving forward, the amount of custom integration within sites is certain to increase. Although it currently represents only 20 percent of display ad impressions, it already generates half of all display ad revenues.
Setting up the perfect partnership
While custom integration is one of the fastest growing and most effective online ad concepts, advertisers need to ensure they don't fall into the trap of creating a custom campaign for the sake of it. It's essential that they look at the product or service they are promoting and get a solid understanding of the target site and its demographics.
For an integration to be successful, it needs to work for both parties, hitting the goals and needs of both the publisher and the advertiser. The publisher needs to ensure that it doesn't alienate readers, and the advertiser obviously must see tangible ROI returns. Digging a bit deeper, for the publisher, this means the ads need to fit with the flow of the site -- impactful, without being overly intrusive. It also needs to fit with the site's style and content to stay relevant and generate the required awareness and interaction. It needs to give site visitors the type of experience that they have come to the site for, such as entertainment or useful information or tips. Last, it needs to be fun. Boring ads, whether they are static banners or complex Flash-based integrations, will turn off the visitor, and the ROI will be lost.
For the advertiser, choice of site is, understandably, critical. First and foremost, advertisers should ask themselves if the site hits the audience they are looking for -- in particular, if site visitors are potential customers for their product. It's surprising how often this is overlooked, and countless ads are placed on sites that, although highly trafficked, simply don't resonate with their target audience. On top of this, the opportunity presented needs to work for the advertiser. This means major branding on the site, not just one of several concurrent integrations. Last, although the ad needs to generate results on the site itself, the ubiquity of social media means that it should live beyond the confines of the site itself. For this to be achieved, an advertiser must ensure the content has a viral, sharable element (such as Facebook integration), and that the visitors to the site are the highly networked influencers that can spread the word.
The four steps to custom integration nirvana
With all of this background information in mind, we'll go into a bit more detail on the four key steps that the advertiser needs to take to turn the concept into a successful program.
Target your audience. Targeting the audience effectively is critical. While ad networks can spread the message far and wide, their lack of focus means that ads placed this way are less than 10 percent as effective as custom integrations. Focusing on one site with a custom ad works better for both parties; the publisher gets relevant content to its visitors, while the advertisers get higher ROI from their ad spend.
For integrations to be successful, they need to fit contextually into the site where they are placed -- not just target gender and age, but also be thematically relevant. For example, a female hair care brand is more likely to generate strong results by creating an integration on a female-targeting, beauty-oriented site over one that focuses on more generic lifestyle information. In fact, it's been proven that ads that are contextually relevant are 61 percent more likely to be recalled than those placed on less targeted sites.
It's also worthwhile to research the online profile of your target site's visitors, whether they are mainly consumers or creators and sharers. Now that social media allows internet users to share content out to their personal networks, through Facebook, Twitter, etc., a site that is popular among online "power users" can generate interest far beyond its core readership.
Up the creativity level. Although reaching the right audience for your brand is essential, it is, however, unlikely to generate the expected results unless the creative aspect of the integration is of a high caliber. While static banner ads are often used simply to provide awareness of a product or brand, the focus of a larger integration should be more on providing content of real value to your target audience. This will help position your company as a brand that is empathetic to your market, and not simply broadcasting your message.
The value the integration provides can range from entertainment (for example, a movie trailer, poll, or game) to information that is useful to the viewer, such as tips, recipes, or advice. However, the common thread among these is that the information must be compelling and encourage users to revisit the host site. This could range from getting a place on a game's leaderboard to a daily or weekly recipe.
Providing this value for the audience will help the brand to build an authentic relationship with its target, as well as building viewer credibility for both the publisher and the advertiser. All of this is vital for keeping page views high and generating tangible ROI.
Seed the content effectively. Once the integration has been conceptualized and designed, correct seeding on (and off) the publisher's site will maximize the reach and impact of campaign. After all, once a brand has taken the time to select the most effective publisher for its ad, it would be pointless to place it in an irrelevant section within the site and force a conversation. In practical terms, this means that instead of trying to crowbar the ad into an irrelevant section of the site, the integration can appear as seamless as possible by reaching the audience while it's in the right mindset. By allowing the audience members to engage the brand on their own terms, instead of forcing it upon them, it's a lot easier to be seen as the authority, as opposed to simply being an advertiser.
Empower your viewers. The final element of the quest is interaction with the audience and empowering visitors to share their experiences. To achieve this, brands must ensure that their concept lives off the page through email or social media. For this to happen, there needs to be a call to action for the visitors that gives them a reason to share the information. A link that is forwarded by site visitors is a reflection on their own personalities, so an integration seen as dull or overly hard-sell is unlikely to generate much additional buzz.
Therefore, what site visitors typically look for is something that allows them to demonstrate their own personality, skill, or creativity. There are countless ways that this can be achieved, from quizzes or contests, challenging users' friends to beat their scores, to elements that allow them to create pictures or avatars on the site. Not only does this type of information generate more page views, but through email sharing or Facebook integration, it also enables brands to secure valuable user contact information. At a time when both online and offline audiences are becoming more skeptical of being overtly marketed to, allowing your brand's fans to evangelize on your behalf is a critical element in staying ahead of the game.
With all that said, the combination of an innovative custom campaign on a rich content-relevant site can influence and inspire the right audience and therefore lead to success for a brand. Consider this a checklist for an advertiser when contemplating the integration of a brand into custom campaigns.
Mike Dodge is EVP of AtomicOnline.
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