Branding Ads Are Great. Does Your Client Think So, Too?

To fulfill my mandate to write about media buying, I often try to highlight new and interesting media placement options and offer ideas about how to spice up those everyday (often unremarkable) campaigns. Lately I’ve come to notice that implementing these “beyond the banner” strategies, many of which are designed for branding purposes, is easier said than done. A media buyer can apply all of her knowledge and experience to create a simply brilliant outline for a branding campaign, but the real challenge is selling its results to the client.

About eight months ago, I sat down with a long-term advertiser to discuss his strategy for 2002. I listened as he described how the company’s focus had changed in recent months and how he now wanted to put energy and ad dollars into promoting the consumer side of the business, leaving business-to-business (B2B) initiatives to the company’s offline team. He emphasized the importance of driving site traffic, an objective that must be met to appease investors, but he pointed out that above all, the company needed to brand its name. It was that one little word — “branding” — that would become the bane of my existence in the harrowing months to come.

To an Internet marketer, being given the green light to develop an online branding campaign is the equivalent of learning you’ve won the lottery… and immediately heading out on a shopping spree. The freedom that a branding campaign affords allows us to exercise the long-forgotten creative muscle we’re normally forced to ignore in favor of a more “scientific” routine. It allows us to buy the fun, flashy, and new-fangled placements we’ve looked at longingly in the media shop window but haven’t yet had the opportunity to purchase. Of course, even with permission to get a little crazy, generating conversions is always a concern. But when the purpose of a placement isn’t solely to attain measurable results, we can really let our imaginations fly.

As I left the meeting, my mind was already swimming with ideas. I would renew the standard pay-per-search and cost-per-click placements that had never let me down as cost-effective, traffic-generating methods of advertising. I would also introduce a content-integration sponsorship placement and a few “voken” ads to build buzz about the company’s relatively unknown consumer brand name. I spent months searching for just the right sites, created what I thought to be a flawless plan, and submitted it to the client for review. I had made certain to clearly illustrate the balance between traffic-generating placements and branding ads, and I reassured him that the results-oriented portion of his campaign would most certainly be measurable and his ad dollars would be accounted for. I shouldn’t have been surprised that he was as excited about the branding ads as I was — it’s not often that a client with a modest budget gets to experience the full effect of what Internet advertising has to offer. The plan was immediately approved.

It was much later, when the campaign was launched and the first month’s statistics were compiled in a report, that I realized I was naïve to think selling a client on a branding campaign was easy. The click-through rate on the voken ad was low, averaging at 0.38 percent, and when the cost of designing the ad was factored in the cost per click on the campaign was just over $8.92. There was, of course, no way to measure the branding effect the clever little ad had had on consumers, so the client’s attention was inevitably drawn to the statistics that, according to the mandate he himself had imposed, should have been irrelevant. I had developed an attention-grabbing branding campaign but had no way of proving it was working. The client had approved the placements knowing he would not be able to see tangible or measurable results but was unwilling to accept the absence of them when it came time to analyze the campaign.

Some account executives might say withholding click-through rates from the client is the only way to ensure he does not become distracted by that magnetic, albeit irrelevant, data. I’d like to meet the client who does not demand to see them. It’s long been said we online marketers shot ourselves in the collective foot by putting so much emphasis on the measurability of this medium in the beginning, especially now that we’re telling advertisers there’s more to all this than just click-through rates. My client will see the results of his branding placements eventually, but will he be willing to wait?

I’m now entering the lengthy process of trying to convince him to keep the branding portion of his campaign running. The moral of this story? It turns out branding campaigns aren’t so much like winning the lottery, unless you have a lottery official tracking your spending at the mall.

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