Be the Steak!

One of the oldest marketing adages is “Sell the sizzle, not the steak,” meaning benefits sell, not features. This makes total sense. At heart, the best advertising works on emotion, not reason. Ads that affect us emotionally and tickle our primitive lizard brainstems work best. Humor, stirring imagery, fear, hope, lust, greed, altruism… these are the stuff of great ads.

This fact may explain why online advertising often pales in comparison to its counterparts in other media. Without high-resolution imagery, moving pictures, and stirring sound, online ads must often rely on direct approaches such as sweepstakes, pricing come-ons, shocking language, or trickery to grab users’ attention. Whether by design, laziness, or even the medium’s limitations, little (if any) online advertising uses (or succeeds with) emotion.

Does this mean the Web is a bad advertising medium? Absolutely not. It just means we have to use it in a way that works for consumers. If the Web can’t sizzle, it’d better be a damn good steak.

If you look at consumer behavior on the Internet right now, you’ll see that’s exactly the way the Web’s being used. Travel’s a perfect example. A recent study shows many people using the Web to conduct travel-related transactions: buying tickets, booking hotel rooms, and renting cars online. These are all behaviors occurring after the travel decision has been made. They’re practical, information-based transactions rather than emotionally based destination decisions: the “meat” of the process.

A DoubleClick study shows this same behavior also applies to retail decisions. The Web helps people learn more about products and assists in their decisions, rather than necessarily creating the desire for purchase in the first place. Word of mouth is a big influencer in purchasing decisions, something propagated extremely well through electronic channels such as email and instant messaging.

A study by Channel Intelligence confirms these findings, showing 45 percent of users aren’t actually buying online, but are spending time researching product information. When deciding which e-tailer to buy from (if buying online), price, return policy, and ease of purchase were top concerns — all very practical issues.

For many consumers, TV viewing and Web surfing go hand in hand. A fairly large percentage of the population engages in simultaneous Web surfing and television viewing, according to a study of European consumers. A large percentage (almost 31 percent) surf during commercials.

If you look at all these numbers, it’s clear the Internet serves a vital, and very different, role in the buying-decision process than traditional media. When it comes to buying stuff, people turn to the Web for the same thing they turn to the Web for when they’re not buying: information and transactions. If you look at the current state of technology, this makes perfect sense. The Web isn’t primarily an entertainment medium in the way TV and radio are. Instead, it’s a place we go to learn things and contact other people.

As marketers, it’s vital we use the Web for its strengths and what consumers use it for. For products and services requiring a moderate to long-term purchase-decision process, sites must be information-rich and easy to navigate. They need to back up other marketing efforts, not try to substitute for advertising going on in other channels. The perfect marketing mix is one that uses more entertaining, emotionally affective media (TV, radio, and print) to start the process of desire (the sizzle) and the Web to provide information and experiences that drive the sale (the steak). All this can (and should) be supplemented by online advertising. But never confuse the Web with TV.

Be the steak.

Don’t miss ClickZ’s Weblog Business Strategies in Boston, June 9-10.

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