Explaining the Elephant

Quick, describe an effective online ad. Is it an ad that garners the greatest number of impressions? One that fully engages the end user? How about one that dazzles with fancy animation and interactivity? Or is it an ad that pops up on your computer screen every time you try to do anything?

As so often happens, the answer to this particular conundrum is, “It depends.”

During the past five years, the ways in which online advertisers have been expected to determine the effectiveness of their campaigns has evolved almost as often as the ad formats themselves. For instance, back in the “good old days” (circa 1998) many advertisers were still firmly entrenched in the belief the end-all, be-all was the percentage of ad impressions resulting in a click through to the advertiser’s Web site.

Since then, we’ve also hung our hats on the number of views, number of unique views, number of unique views with interactivity, demographic profiling, return on investment (ROI), return on marketing objectives, and scientific wild-ass guesses (SWAGs) to help determine if online ads are performing as desired. As you might expect, when you look at the range of campaigns, they make a nice bell curve, running from those ads that were minor economic disasters to those that made the advertisers dance around the office with glee.

But what makes an ad effective?

Recently marketers have been asking themselves the same question. According to recent various industry statistics, some are turning toward creating television-like online ads that stream digital video. For other advertisers, the trend seems to be toward other rich media ad formats. Still others continue to be firmly planted in the world of animated GIFs.

In fact, according to AdRelevance, now a division of NetRatings, the percentage of online advertisers who continue to rely on still images to tell their marketing story (as of September 2002) was 42. Those advertisers still using GIF animations accounted for 44 percent.

However, it does appear those percentages are continuing to drop as rich media ads are blended into the mix. According to AdRelevance, 1.5 percent of ads run in January 2002 used rich media, and that number had grown to 7.5 percent by October 2002. I will add the classification of “rich media,” according to the report, is an ad that incorporates any Java, Flash, or streaming delivery mechanisms. My personal view is that a Java- or Flash-based ad that doesn’t incorporate any interactivity isn’t much more than a dressed-up GIF ad. Still, the news is encouraging to those of us who have our faith in rich media.

But what makes an ad effective?

An old parable from India that tells the tale of six blind men who try to describe an elephant by using the sense of touch alone. (A poem retelling this parable can be found here.) The lesson of the tale is the way you see something depends entirely on your personal perspective. Although one perspective might seem absolute, it is often just a part of the whole.

For online advertisers, defining effectiveness in online advertising is as simple as describing an elephant when you’ve never actually seen one. One advertiser may try to stay on the bleeding edge, incorporating streaming digital video ads that emulate television ads. Another might reason the Internet experience, unlike that of watching television, is about interacting and may therefore opt to create ads that can teach, inform, and sell by using interactivity. Yet another might assume frequency is more important than variety and spend money on a greater number of impressions promoting a simple animated ad. Still another may decide what she really wants is an affordable way to promote her Web presence and will satisfy herself with ads that drive traffic. Are these approaches effective? It depends.

Online advertising isn’t a one-size-fits-all affair. A lot of different types of products and services are sold online, and a lot of different types of people see those ads. Every once in a while, an ad grabs the attention of an online consumer. The result might be subtle, such as when a brand image is enhanced, or more dynamic, such as when an ad leads to a direct sale. Yet, both results are considered effective. The result could even be the consumer follows the ad to a Web site, or interacts with the ad, but returns to the publisher site. This is an effective outcome as well.

Like the elephant, effective online marketing can’t be easily explained because the very definition of “effective” can’t be isolated. And yet, in advertising, ad effectiveness is based on a very simple goal — getting the right message to the right consumer at the right time.

Knowing that, can you create effective online ads?

It depends.

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