Advertising Works, But It’s Not a Magic Bullet

What can we reasonably expect from advertising? I like to ask myself this question right before I begin planning a campaign for one of my clients. It helps me to be realistic about what my campaign will do for an advertiser.

Advertising is supposed to sell products and services, but the practice consists of a few parts strategy, a few parts creativity, and a dash of voodoo. We know that we want to reach people who are likely candidates for buying a specific product, but plenty of factors go into why a prospect rushes out to a store or plunks down a credit card online to buy it.

One of these factors is the prospect’s consideration of the product. While advertisers might believe that their product is superior to everything else on the market and that any other consideration is just plan silly, rarely is that the case in the mind of the consumer we’re trying to reach with our messages. We might be advertising a digital camera from Canon in our ads, but we may be reaching consumers who have a different set of considerations filed away in their brains under “digital cameras.” They might be thinking that they would rather buy a Sony when the time comes for them to purchase. Worse yet, they might be thinking that all digital cameras are a rip-off and that they would never consider buying one until prices come down.

The trick, in the above case, is to get your product into the prospect’s consideration frame. You want prospects to consider your product as a possible choice if and when they’re thinking about the product category. Because Web users tend to align themselves around interests and lifestyles, the Web is remarkably well suited to help you accomplish this mission. That’s why it seems like such a no-brainer to advertise online brokerages on stock quote sites. You’re reaching someone who will likely be considering signing up with an online brokerage at some point in the near future.

Another factor involved in the purchase is the consumer’s time frame. Is he or she ready to make a purchase in the category that your product falls under? You might have developed the coolest superstitial in the world to promote shiny new Chevy Corvettes, but likely what it will achieve is getting a Corvette into the consideration frame of prospects who don’t have $50,000 they’re willing to spend on a car in the near future. Your superstitial isn’t going to make everyone who sees it run right out to the local dealership with checkbook in hand. That’s why car manufacturers advertise with the hopes of getting into a prospect’s consideration frame, so that when the time comes for a consumer to make a car purchase, the product is considered. But the manufacturers don’t expect all the sales resulting from their ads to happen immediately. That’s just not the way many high-ticket items are purchased.

Time frame affects low- and medium-cost items, too. How many times have you driven past a Foot Locker and said, “You know, I’d like a new pair of Reeboks, but I can get another month or two out of the ones I’m wearing.”

Now, consider what I’ve just said in the context of Web advertising campaigns, specifically ones designed to support an e-commerce initiative. In these cases, we’re typically delivering ads that not only inform and build brand but also offer functionality so that prospects who wish to purchase right away can do so via the Web. Often, when we buy media on a cost-per-action (CPA) basis, our expectations are a bit out of whack. We expect to make plenty of online sales right away. We expect that everything I said in the last few paragraphs goes out the window. We want people to buy. Right now.

Is this a realistic expectation? Not necessarily. While Web ads can help to get a product into a consumer’s consideration frame and we can make some reasonably well-educated guesses as to how to advertise to consumers just when they’re ready to buy, it’s still a rare thing to achieve that magical combination of “right place, right time, right product” in a Web advertising campaign. Not that the Web’s capacity to serve as an advertising medium is diminished by this in any way — it’s tough for any medium to achieve that goal.

Why, then, do we get upset when we look at our Web campaign performance reports and see that not everyone who was exposed to a Web ad immediately rushed out to buy the advertised product? It’s an issue of unrealistic expectations.

Advertising does work. That much we know. But it doesn’t work like a magic bullet. We’ve worked very hard to figure out that time, place, and manner all have significant roles in ad effectiveness, but there are countless other factors at work that affect a consumer’s purchase behavior. The best that an advertiser who employs an agency can hope to do is hire one that will examine some of those other factors and develop a strategy that will maximize the likelihood of purchase.

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