Branding Online Is Possible… Now What?

You’ve read all of the press releases. You’ve seen all the subject lines in emails from the plethora of discussion lists you subscribe to. Heck, you might even have actually perused the studies themselves. Whatever your level of engagement might be in the digital marketing space, there’s no doubt you know: Tangible data suggests that branding online is possible.

Research was released on July 18, 2001, that covered studies done by Dynamic Logic with the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and MSN, as well as the DoubleClick study conducted by its research arm, Diameter. That same week, CNET released its own study. All of these basically made the same point: Online advertising can positively affect traditional branding metrics.

There is also the Unicast study, which showed that a Unicast superstitial is at least as effective as a 30-second television spot when it comes to branding and recall.

But we can go back all the way to 1996 to find the first example of a study that sought to determine whether banner ads actually provide a vehicle for effective commercial communication. If we want to find an early example of research indicating that online advertising can, indeed, lend to brand awareness, we can start there.

Hundreds of studies are out there, both proprietary and syndicated, that suggest online advertising works like other forms of media to enhance things such as brand awareness, purchase intent, message association, and other such surrogates for indicators of successful advertising.

So, why is it that no one is listening? What can be done to get the word out and get advertisers, especially traditional advertisers, to start playing?

First, advertisers doubt the anecdotal “proofs” heralded by publishers. Advertisers have heard branding claims being made on behalf of online advertising for a long time now. Take the example of the cable medium in the early days. The networks insisted that cable, like regular broadcast networks, could accomplish the same goals and objectives advertisers had for their advertising. The crux of their arguments relied on an instinctively apparent relationship between the cable medium and the rest of television.

It seems obvious to most of us now that cable can be as powerful as the standard television broadcast medium, but it took years before most major advertisers would buy into it. As a result, cable remained an afterthought and most inventory sold was on a per-inquiry basis. It wasn’t until an overwhelming preponderance of research became available to irrefutably prove cable’s benefits that advertisers started using the medium in earnest. Sound familiar?

Second, the advertisers lack exposure to any of the actual data and resultant information from the myriad studies done to demonstrate online advertising’s effects on traditional branding metrics. They’ve heard the stories, but I’ve found that an awful lot of them just haven’t seen the actual reports. Why, you might ask?

Well, simply put, a lot of brand managers and marketing VPs don’t have the time to seek out these reports and study them on their own. They hear the stories from vendors or through the industry grapevine, but they don’t get any real familiarity with the work that’s being done.

This is a failing on the part of the agencies, I must confess. Agencies are so interested in just getting plans out the door and obtaining approvals from the clients to start execution that they don’t all spend enough time going over the industry intelligence available to help them make their case for online advertising as a viable branding vehicle. I would even venture to guess that most agency personnel have not actually read these studies.

It is the agency’s responsibility, as the marketing partner of its clients, to allocate resources and expend some effort to get in front of its clients and present this information to them. This should not just be done as a review of the studies and their data, but should put the client’s business in the context of that data.

Given the branding-study data, how will the client’s activities be affected? If your client were to commit x amount of dollars to an online campaign, what kind of yield can she expect to see in return? How much inventory will her dollars buy and what kind of impact will it have in terms of both material (response) results and branding results?

I recently put together a pitch for a very traditional advertiser in an effort to get it into the digital marketing space. Sure, it’d already got the site up, and already tried some basic online advertising back in the day. But results versus promises were disappointing. At the beginning of the meeting, the prospective client all but said that online advertising sucks and they weren’t interested in it as a medium.

But in my presentation I included examples of results from the Diameter and IAB online branding studies. I repurposed that data to reflect what kinds of results, based on a few assumptions, the client could expect to gain from varying levels of online advertising. The prospective client was blown away. By the end of the meeting they started brainstorming about some Web-based experiments they would be interested in attempting in light of the information presented.

It’s up to agencies, as the frontline soldiers in clients’ marketing efforts, not only to scout for opportunities and intelligence but also to find ways of presenting that intelligence in a compelling yet truthful manner so that clients can actually see for themselves just what can be accomplished by using the online medium.

The reports, studies, and surveys don’t download themselves; they aren’t read, comprehended, and presented automatically. The agency needs to start being an A-G-E-N-T and facilitate this process for its clients.

Because if you the agency don’t, some publisher will do it instead.

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