Your ad on a Web page is competing with upward of two dozen other messages and calls to action. Think about it. On any given Web page, there are probably at least 20 links you can click on, including your humble ad. So what's a poor advertiser to do?
Stock market prices aren't the only things that are dropping these days. Nielsen//NetRatings recently released new statistics on banner click-throughs, and the news ain't pretty. About 2 in every 1,000 people actually click on one of these horizontal come-ons. According to the research firm, the average click rate for the top banners was a dismal 0.22 percent.
Remember, a click is just a click. It doesn't necessarily guarantee a lead, a purchase, or a customer. In fact, it may frequently result in nothing more than the tap of the Back button. Suddenly, Johnny Wanamaker's old adage that half of any advertising is wasted suddenly sounds pretty damn good! Ah, if only we could prove that half of the Web spending was worth it!
The new statistics got me thinking. I'm a big believer in shades of gray, but sometimes things can be pretty black and white. In my book, there are two kinds of Web sites: those you go to clearly intending NOT to stay, and those you go to clearly intending NOT to leave. Maybe I'm making this a little too cut-and-dried, but I believe this fact can radically skew the success of any given ad campaign.
Let's start with the Web sites you intend to leave. Think of it like changing planes. You're on your way from Baltimore to San Francisco and must change plans in Cincinnati. Your only reason for being in Cincinnati is to get elsewhere. There are lots of sites like that, starting with the search engines. I'd wager that most visits to a search engine are specifically for finding somewhere else to go. This should be great for advertisers. The trouble is, the 468 x 60 banner across the top of the screen doesn't work. Most folks have trained themselves (subconsciously perhaps) to look below the banner and pay no attention. GoTo.com and FindWhat.com understand this and capitalize nicely on this predisposition to leave by selling search results to the highest bidder.
Another group of sites that falls into this "I'm leaving you" category are many of the sweepstakes/points-based sites. Make a trip to iWon, coolsavings.com, MileSpree, or winfreestuff.com. It's all about heading off elsewhere to win that trip for four to Hawaii... to take advantage of that special free introductory offer... to rack up those points/miles. These sites, many of them pay-for-performance sites, understand that aggregating reasons to leave can work. On any given page, you're likely to have more ads than content.
Now let's look at the "I'm here to stay" sites. Think of Salon.com, WSJ.com, Real.com, Warner Brothers, TheStreet.com, and comedycentral.com. In each case, you've gone there for a specific reason. Maybe it's to read a favorite columnist, to download software, to view a movie preview, to research a stock. The fact is, you don't want to be distracted. You're there for a reason, and no 468 x 60 banner at the top of the page is going to lead you astray.
Let's pause for a moment to consider a couple of key differences between traditional media and the Web. Perhaps the biggest, oft-cited, much-touted difference is this: Traditional media is passive, and the Web is interactive. You sit back and watch the TV or listen to the radio. Sure, you can click the remote or push the Seek button, but by and large you're a passive, captive audience. As my five-year-old aptly pointed out while surfing the Web with me the other day, "I get it. On the Internet, you can pick your ads!"
A second key difference is impact. When an ad appears on TV or on radio or even in a magazine, it gets your undivided attention. It's big, it's in your face, and there's no missing it (unless you head to the kitchen for a beer). Contrast that to the Web. Your ad appears somewhere on the page, and it's competing with upward of two dozen other messages and calls to action. Think about it. On any given Web page, there are probably at least 20 links you can click on, including your humble ad.
So what's a poor advertiser to do? The answer is simple:
It's a fine line here. We all know how annoying (some) pop-up boxes or orange blobs dancing across our screens can be. On the flip side, a strategically placed Flash application or superstitial can be extremely effective -- especially when it comes to branding or imprinting a URL. Check out Unicast for some recent examples from big-bucks advertisers, such as McDonald's, Fleet Boston Financial, NBC, and Coke.
Site integration anywhere -- except in that top-of-the-page banner slot -- makes perfect sense. Text links can work beautifully. Or imagine what a banner that appeared in the middle of a search results page on a search engine might look like, say after the third or fourth search result. My gut -- it would pop and would be a lot more effective than that same banner at the top of the page. You're still in that coveted "above the fold" space, but you're integrated. Below the fold can work, too. A banner at the bottom of a page may be just the ticket. (Just don't pay the same cost per thousand for that placement.)
Confirmation pages -- whether for checking your free email account or entering a sweepstakes -- are great locations. Think about it. Someone has just completed an action. What are they going to do next? Click on your ad unit! It's all about contextual integration coupled with a strong call to action.
Tailor your message and goals for different types of sites.
On many sites, you may not be able to get someone to click away, but perhaps you can get visitors to take 30 seconds from their visit to interact with a strategically placed banner or larger ad unit. Entice them to enter a sweepstakes, take a survey, or play a game -- all on the host site. Capture their email, and you can follow up with a targeted email message ("You played our World History Quiz on TheEconomist.com..."). Bluestreak, Enliven, and Point Roll offer cool technology that allows you to do this. Your goal should be to get someone to pause for a moment, interact briefly with your brand, and give you just enough information for future follow-up.
Remember, too, that in addition to building brand awareness, your ad unit should also imprint your URL on people's minds. Visitors may not be predisposed to visit at that very minute, but they may gladly visit at their leisure -- if they can remember the URL.
Use multiple metrics (click-through being only one) to measure success.
For brand advertisers, this might be brand awareness or URL recall. For direct marketers, it's likely to be lead generation or actual purchase. At the end of the day, there are multiple metrics for success:
Cindy Dale is a Partner at Cullen Dale Associates, an eConsulting firm that focuses on helping companies develop Web strategies and put them into action. Before Cullen Dale Associates, Cindy held key interactive management positions at Rosenbluth Interactive, BBDO, and Columbia House. A true interactive pioneer, she began her eCareer in 1985, when she served as a Marketing and Promotion Consultant to CompuServe.
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