The days of "click-it-or-skip-it" ad banners may soon be drawing to a close. In a bold new initiative by Weblogs, Inc., the largest publisher of professional blogs on the net, advertisers are now being offered "Focus-Ads," online ads that give readers the option to publicly comment on an ad and/or product. These interactive ads have been running for several weeks on some of Weblogs' larger blogs, like AutoBlog.com and Engadget.com, with plans to expand the program to many of their 72 other professional web logs. Weblogs launched the program with the Auto division of American Suzuki Motor Corporation and has grown to include Subaru, Griffin Technology, Orb Networks, ABS Computers, and several other large advertisers.
I love/hate this ad/product because…
Readers are prompted to click a link underneath the ad, which takes them to a page where they can review previously submitted comments and submit one of their own. While not all comments go live -- non-constructive posts or personal attacks may be rejected -- all comments are forwarded to the advertiser, if they elect to receive them. Advertisers then have the option of not responding, publicly responding with a post of their own, or even sending an email response directly to an individual poster (an email address is required to leave a comment, but lists are not collected for marketing).
What's in it for either party?
Why run a Focus-Ad if you're an advertiser -- especially when you're opening yourself up to possible public criticism or negative word-of-mouth? According to Shawn Gold of Weblogs, advertisers participate because, "they believe in their brands and are willing to improve them through the feedback of enthusiasts."
But clearly, based on the number of comments regularly posted regarding the look/feel and effectiveness of the ads themselves, it's not just about product feedback. Gold agrees. "The Idea is to elicit comments on the offer and the product/service to create a learning experience for both reader and advertiser. For some advertisers the comments lean more toward the message. Based on what we've seen, it appears there is a real opportunity to use this system for message testing."
So, do consumers who respond to Focus-Ads actually have the power to influence the way products are promoted and even manufactured? The answer is yes, according to David Harris, e-business manager at American Suzuki. "We are in a new marketing environment that is based on consumer empowerment, and blogs are at the forefront of that movement," said Harris in a recent press release. "Focus-Ads allow us to reach auto enthusiasts and gain valuable insight on how they perceive our products and the way we promote them."
Are blog readers real people?
Clearly, the advertisers are listening, but are they listening to the right people? While comments from blog readers about ads aimed specifically at them are obviously useful, do their comments about advertised products necessarily represent the opinions of typical consumers? According to Gold, blog readers may not be typical, but because they're enthusiasts, they can be highly influential. "Marketers advertise on blogs because they are looking to reach influencers, so a good portion of our readers are informed and vocal to start with. They are already commenting on the articles, sharing inside tips, news and experiences."
Information, good or bad, is power
So far, the vast majority of reader comments have been constructive, with only about 5 percent of the submitted comments rejected for being unconstructive or personal attacks against other users. "Constructive" doesn't just mean positive feedback, either. Advertisers with thick enough skins to run Focus-Ads are hungry for any type of information that might help them design or market their products better -- especially since even negative feedback could save them money. As Gold puts it: "The idea for the advertiser is that if our audience hates your advertising or product, you should know it and not waste your money, or you should learn from it and adjust." By monitoring the feedback of readers, especially feedback about a specific ad on a specific blog, advertisers can better measure the success of their ad and make an informed decision as to how long to run it.
Measuring the success of the Focus-Ad program itself, however, is not quite so cut and dried. According to Gold, success is measured two-fold, on both sides of the equation: (1) by readers gaining enough insight through testimonials to make informed decisions as to whether they should enter into relationships with specific advertisers, and (2) by advertisers gaining enough insight into their message and product to continually make adjustments in order to improve.
It seems clear that a successful Focus-Ad program could spell more success for Weblogs, too --in the form of increased ad revenues. While Weblogs doesn't currently charge advertisers higher rates for Focus-Ads, if the program takes off, more advertisers will undoubtedly want to participate, and almost certainly be willing to pay a premium for the service.
But that's all down the road for Weblogs. They're currently concentrating on existing Focus-Ads and exploring options to expand the program into other niche blogs, where this type of targeted marketing might make even more sense. Whether or not Focus-Ads ultimately prove to be winners, blog readers are currently winning with more power to influence the products and ads that compete for their attention. As Gold puts it, "This is day one in a never-ending trend of consumer empowerment."
For now, consumers have a way to talk back directly to advertisers -- other than speaking loud and clear with their hard-earned dollars, of course.