It's the Message, Stupid

Do you remember when banner ads represented the extent of advertising opportunities available online? If you do, you’ve been in this business a long time. You’ll also remember how crude those online advertising formats were by today’s standards. 

Back then, advertising agencies often took concepts directly from offline campaigns and translated them into banner ads. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. The unique opportunities made possible by the Internet weren’t yet being fully realized.

Today, banner ads are slowly becoming the audio cassette tape of the online advertising world. They still work when done well, but they’re not nearly as cool -- especially when compared to the lure of rich media to advertisers.

As rich media began to mature, the opportunity it represented for advertisers and brand managers was enormous. Finally, an advertising vehicle on the Internet offered a brand experience previously available only on television and other offline media.

It is now difficult to get through a day online without having something crawl across your browser window, pop up in the middle of your article or offer you a miniature golf challenge while you’re booking your next flight. More of a novelty just a year ago, rich media is becoming far more mainstream.

Here’s the problem: too many rich media ads today clearly focus their energies on the creative execution instead of the message. In an apparent effort to be the most creative (or the most interruptive), many advertisers and agencies succeed in getting the customer’s attention -- but fail to deliver the key message or persuade consumers to take the desired action.

This challenge with rich media can be a very slippery slope. But with a little effort and understanding of the medium, smart advertisers can be graphically exciting and deliver the right message -- clearly and successfully. Here are a few tips to make this happen:

Don’t be afraid to keep it simple

Rich media advertisements are by their nature more complex. Too often, that complexity leads to complicated ads. Some agencies and developers are tempted to flex their muscles to pad their egos and fill their trophy cases. But just because it’s rich media doesn’t mean your ad needs to be richly complex. If you confuse your audience with too much flash, the message is likely to get lost.

Take advantage of context

First, make sure you’re buying ad space on the right sites so your ads will be seen by the right audience. This seems basic enough. What advertisers often fail to think about is the value of customizing their ads to the specific context of each site -- maybe even specific sections of large sites. For example, a company selling vintage baseball jerseys has a natural set of sports-related sites they may target for their ad campaign. But do they customize the ad campaign for each specific site? Should an advertisement on, for example, make a special offer exclusive to that site’s visitors? Speaking directly to your target audience, not merely at them, will always yield better results.

Don’t forget the offer

Of course some rich media campaigns are primarily about brand awareness. But even brand campaigns should have a purpose. Tell your customers what to do next. Give them a compelling reason to do it now instead of later. Most rich media is far more interruptive in nature than ‘traditional’ online advertising (banner ads, even text ads), so it’s less likely that a consumer will want to interrupt their intended activity to take action on your advertisement. This makes an offer especially important to lift response.

Make it functional

Put another way, give your audience something to interact with. Here’s what I mean: interactivity for its own sake doesn’t usually do much. Functional interaction is more directional -- it drives your audience to an activity that calls attention to your product and/or brand. This can be as simple and functional as having consumers fill out a form or questionnaire for follow-up or profiling. Or offering some type of game or activity that reinforces your campaign objectives. 

Copy is king

The 40-40-20 rule (meaning good advertising is 40 percent list, 40 percent offer, and 20 percent creative) still applies. List (targeting and context in the online advertising world) is discussed above. Your offer, made even more compelling with good copy, is the next most important element of online advertising. Good creative can accentuate the message and the offer. Bad creative may cloud it. But outstanding creative and bad copy still won’t get you the results you want. Smoke and mirrors are still smoke and mirrors in any medium. Don’t skimp on the basics.

Use the right format

Despite the excitement surrounding rich media, make sure this format is right for your campaign.  Although rich media might be more exciting, would a banner or skyscraper campaign do the job at a lower cost? What about text links or newsletter sponsorships? Start with your objectives, then define your strategy. Don’t fall into the trap of working the other way around.

Matt Heinz is director of marketing for HouseValues, Inc., a marketing services company that provides residential real estate agents with technology and marketing solutions. Matt has more than 10 years of consumer and B-to-B marketing experience with technology, real estate and retail products. He previously held marketing positions at Microsoft, The Boeing Company, Weber Shandwick, The Seattle Mariners and the Washington State Attorney General’s office.