Advertising In The Digital Age

This weekend I had some time, so I sat down to “surf.” You know what I mean — I was going to use the web for entertainment, clicking links, jumping around, searching for nothing in particular, just having fun. Two hours later I turned off the computer in disgust, filled with frustration and pretty dang irritated.

Try as I might, I had a hard time not coming back to the same stuff over and over again. I knew that cool new stuff was out there somewhere but finding it seemed more of a chore than I was ready for. With unlimited possibilities, I became a stunned deer in the headlights, standing in the middle of the information superhighway.

And it made me think — is this how someone new to the web experiences cyberspace? All the hype tells me so. People are “surfing” the Net or “cruising” the Infobahn, right? The Net’s a fun place, right? And the only way to grab someone’s attention is to create flashy sites that make people stop and notice them, right? And advertising to these Net surfers is just like TV but with more choices, correct?

Nope. Not a chance. And here’s why.

Way back in the mists of time in the pre-digital age, your media choices were pretty limited. If you lived in a major metropolitan area, you probably had maybe four channels of TV — ABC, CBS, NBC and some strange UHF station — two newspapers, and maybe 10 or 15 radio stations to choose from.

All in all, your potential daily media sources probably numbered somewhere under 25. You watched what your friends watched and you all pretty much experienced the same media events when they happened. Even when cable came along, your choices never topped 100 or so different “channels” of media.

Back in those days, the media buyer’s job was fairly easy. Given enough money, any message could be blasted into the homes of a good percentage of the population. Never mind if that message was compelling or particularly interesting — if you wanted someone to see your message bad enough (and had enough money), you could do it.

One of characteristics of the old media that made this job even easier was that old media was (and still is) linear. Insert a commercial into a show and anyone watching that show will probably see that commercial. Even print media, because of its limited scope, shared some of this “linear” aspect — put a full page ad in the paper, and you’ve got a good chance that someone’s going to see it. Advertising, by its very nature, was an interruption-driven form of communication that had to make itself known, grab your attention, and persuade you to take an action at a later time.

The web has changed all of this. Today, there are literally millions of web sites connected together in a non-linear mass that does not require anyone going from “point A” to necessarily pass through “point B.” Sure, one link may lead you to another, but that one link is never the point that everyone’s going to pass through.

Today, it’s almost impossible to guarantee with any certainty that a particular audience will see your message. In the non-linear, highly fragmented world of the web, it’s really not possible to spend enough money to reach everyone. And as more and more sites come online and broadband comes down the pike and starts mixing up the media, trying to pinpoint where your customers are is going to get more and more difficult.

Right now, many media directors, advertisers, and marketing folks still haven’t caught on that the web isn’t TV. They still think that all you’ve got to do is slap a banner up and it’ll do the job. Follow the formula: Get the stats, figure out the CPM, place some banners, and you’re set. Sometimes you might get fancy and switch to one of those nifty banner “alternatives” like interstitials or pop-ups, but only if you’re feeling a little crazy.

If this is your idea of advertising in the digital age, it’s time you took a hard look at what you’re doing. Click-through rates are going down, people report that interstitials and rich media ads are twice as annoying as banner ads, and wide deployment broadband is still two to five years away. You need to start re-considering your ideas of what advertising is and how it should work. Here are some suggestions to consider:

Be A Wave Guide

Trying to change opinion or influence purchasing decisions using only one form of media is going to become more and more difficult and impossibly expensive. People’s opinions are now being influenced by thousands or factors. All you can do is try to channel those opinions by creating online experiences that draw people in through focus and integration. If you want some suggestions, check out the examples set out by VerticalNet or Garden.com.

Be A Border Collie

No, I don’t mean start licking your clients and chasing Frisbees — though that has been shown to work occasionally. No, I mean start thinking of ways to use digital communication to move people towards your marketing goal by well-timed nips of persuasion. An appropriate email sent at the right time in the buying process might do far more to form opinion than some flashy, long-downloading demo or presentation. Think small persuaders at the right time rather than one big push. Think Amazon’s (and others’) genre-specific email reminder services.

Consultation, Not Persuasion

If you have a moment, go check out the Texas Instruments web site. If you poke around for a few minutes, you’ll find that they’ve got a big library of tech tools and information for semiconductor and electronic engineers. By providing this information, they’re helping these folks with their jobs, providing a service, and, it just so happens, helping them to specify TI products at the beginning of their project. Neat, huh? Is it advertising? It is now.

Focus

If there’s one thing that my aborted “surfing” experience proved to me, it’s that we can all only take so much choice. Being everything to everyone’s not an asset. Try to keep things simple and be complete. The Net’s a big, big place.

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