Bizarro Web Revisited

A couple of weeks ago, I presented you all with a scenario from an alternative universe, a world where things are not what we understand them to be at all. A universe where up is down and down is up. Like the places where superheroes live as depicted in the pages of “What If” in the Marvel Universe or “Bizarro” in DC Comics.

Well, today I propose a similar mental exercise. Let’s take another trip through the looking glass. Only this time when we ask, “What if Webvertising came without there ever being mention of a click-through?” the scenario is much more disturbing.

So, once again, close your eyes. Imagine a sky full of stars. Now imagine each of those stars going out, one by one, until you are surrounded by darkness.

Just like before, we find ourselves back in 1995. The Web has been a place of some experimentation for advertisers using odd static pop-ups found in proprietary services like Prodigy, CompuServe, and AOL. Some folks are buying text links. And again we find ourselves with Rick Boyce in the small conference room of Wired’s old offices by South Park in San Francisco. He is demonstrating the way this thing — a banner, is it? — works on the HotWired site. The image, the thing, this… banner, is a rather plain box of text with AT&T copy in it.

Wow. This is pretty cool, going from virtual environment to virtual environment.

How great is it for the brand, being able to generate awareness and have a two-way presence in an editorial environment that has affinity with your product or service?

(Again the fabric of our dimension is straining; reality is about to alter…)

Media nerds and creative geeks alike think this “Web” thing might just be something. Perhaps it will serve as a new medium used by people to get information or be entertained, as other communicative devices have done in the past — you know, TV, radio, magazines.

So agency folks go to their clients and tell them about this wonderful thing called “the Internet.” They talk to their clients about how the world can be brought to a user’s desktop. They talk about how great it would be to have an advertiser’s message right there in the environment of a particular user’s choosing. They talk about “roadblocking” the content categories that are used frequently by a specific target. (On television, for example, “roadblocking” is putting a client’s ad in every program at the same time of day on several channels so that wherever a viewer turns, there’s the ad.).

Media is interested in the idea of something other than the same old TV, radio, or print planning being done for clients. Creative is interested in the possibility of playing with a digital creative format and seeing what is possible.

But clients aren’t sold.

“I don’t know about this Internet thing,” says Brand Manager Bob. “I mean, it’s kind of like print, only smaller.”

“Yes, but a user can ‘interact’ with the advertisement,” says first agency account guy.

“I guess. How big a universe are we talking about? What kind of audience can I reach?” asks Brand Manager Bob.

“Well, we aren’t really sure. Maybe a million?”

“But what kind of audience can I reach?” Brand Manager Bob asks again.

“Uh, most likely single men with high incomes, mostly techies,” replies second agency account guy.

Brand Manager Bob lets a slow sigh escape his nostrils as he turns the mental corner away from this new medium.

“I don’t think so, guys, but thanks for keeping me abreast of new developments. I just don’t see why I’d use something like the Internet when I can achieve the same effect with print. There just isn’t enough of a differentiation between the two media to justify my spending money on the Internet versus print. I might as well just use print. It’s more efficient, and I can reach more of the people I want.”

“But… ” stammers first agency account guy.

“If only there were a killer app to this new medium. You know, something different,” says Brand Manager Bob, jutting his hands out before him.

This scene is repeated hundreds of times across the country. And so advertising never really makes it to the Web.

Without the click-through, there was no way for the Web to distinguish itself from other media. The lack of response-based accountability made the Web just one more hyperniche medium, like posters in bar restrooms or some form of ancillary trade advertising.

If only there were some way to have users respond to the advertising and click through to an advertiser’s site. Then, if we could track that, we could determine which environments on the Web were most efficient in getting users to engage the advertiser’s messaging. Now THAT would set it apart from standard media.

Since there was no click-through, advertisers could not be talked into using the medium. There simply was no compelling reason for advertisers to use it.

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