Establishing an Emotional Connection

I saw an online ad the other day that reminded me why I got into advertising in the first place. It did everything that a good online ad should do. And, perhaps more important, it did something that you don’t usually see: It made an emotional connection.

I don’t want to talk about the particulars of the ad. Instead, I’d like to discuss what made it so powerful and why we’re not seeing more ads like it.

At the root of any ad’s ability to succeed at branding objectives is the emotional connection the ad seeks to make with a consumer. This is true of ads in all media. Television has long been considered the king of advertising media because of its incredible power to connect. However, it is becoming increasingly rare to see any ad format — even a TV spot — succeed at making this critical emotional connection. Of course, as a TiVo owner, I don’t watch all that many commercials anymore, so maybe I’m not the best judge.

You see a lot of ads that try to establish that connection with humor. It’s tricky, but it can be effective (witness “Wassup!”). A more daunting task, even post-September 11, is to make a serious, heart-tugging emotional connection.

Think about it for a few moments — what was the last TV spot you saw that inspired you to feel an emotional connection? Two, in particular, stand out in my mind: the series of eToys spots in which a child’s fascination with some natural object inspires the parent to hunt down a related toy, and an early 60-second “Think Different” spot from Apple, featuring images of groundbreaking, inspirational heroes.

What exactly is it about such ads that make them so successful at connecting? It is art, not a science. It’s a combination of all the tools available to the advertiser. It’s part copywriting, part concept, part color and design, part pacing and movement, part lighting and camera angles, part talent, and so forth. But even the most experienced advertising professional will admit that a certain amount of magic is involved. There’s no simple formula, and there are no guarantees.

Many traditional advertising folks still maintain that the Internet does not provide the tools to create this kind of advertising. Even though study after study has indicated that online ads, particularly rich media formats, can keep pace with TV spots, traditional advertising is not ready to buy into this.

Well, forget all the studies. Forget all the numbers and metrics — impressions and click-through rates and so forth. Even forget the attempts to quantify the subjective by measuring changes in attitude and behavior. I have seen online advertising succeed in creating an emotional connection with my own eyes. And I think that it’s going to start happening more often. I don’t expect my opinion on this to change any traditional advertiser’s mind. I’m merely suggesting that I have seen an online ad accomplish what many think is not possible.

The problem is this: To create an emotional impact online requires a completely different set of tools, thought processes, and tactics. The requirements for the creation of a powerful offline ad and those for the creation of a powerful online ad are not as close as some might think. I hypothesized a while back that interactive TV may require a new generation of storytellers — those who can tell an engaging interactive tale. The folks who today capture our minds at the movies and on TV, with linear stories, may not be the same people who can spin a good interactive story. For the same reason, creating a nonlinear, interactive experience that brands is not a simple task.

Grabbing your TV spot and turning it into a streaming video ad is not necessarily going to get the job done. You can’t just take an ad that was created for one medium and try to force it onto the Web. The online audience isn’t the same as the TV audience — they’re not in the same mindset. Online consumers want to interact; they need to interact with the advertising.

And therein lies the challenge. On TV, advertisers reach out to passive consumers and connect with them using the same cinematic tools that the content providers use. On the Web, these same advertisers and agencies (and even digital-only shops, such as i-FRONTIER) struggle to uncover the rules and seek out the magic. The connection with the consumer is of a different nature — it engages and envelops the user. The ad begs not only for attention but also feedback and interaction. And if it succeeds, by the very nature of the interactivity, it can be more powerful than a TV spot that merely speaks at the consumer.

You’ll have to excuse all of this babbling and grandiose musing. The ad unit I’m talking about was simply that good. It inspired me.

It was a Superstitial — one of the new 300k pieces. But that doesn’t mean this kind of power is only available with a Superstitial. There are a bunch of other great formats out there, and most of them have the same potential. The tools exist, and I am now certain that creating the emotional connection is possible within the current realm of online advertising.

Online advertising continues to evolve, and I remain excited to be a part of it. Hopefully, you are, too.

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