Immersive, Or Over Your Head?

How broad is the intersection of More and Better?

That’s what I found myself wondering this week after spending a couple hours with David Liu, who’s spearheading AOL’s much ballyhooed coming out, and breakfasting with an A-List clutch of advertising and publishing executives at an Online Publishers Association (OPA) event in New York (600 people at 8:00 a.m. — can you believe it?).

Publishers and portals are aware (or should be) that user growth has peaked and flattened. Just under 140 million Americans are online, according to Nielsen//NetRatings. That’s just about as good as things are going to get.

Finite pie, infinite Web. As OPA’s chief, Michael Zimbalist, put it, “Usage is not growing at the rate the dollars are coming in.” The good side of this is that the online population is spending more time and doing more things on the Web — that’s where the growth is, and that’s where attention and ad dollars are flowing. Zimbalist says “user engagement” should therefore be the goal for publishers. He defines this as capturing more user time, and more page views.

One More Page

At AOL, the company is pursuing this goal by tearing down the wall — aiming to turn a big garden into a mere corner of the commons. “One more page” is the mantra in their new Rockefeller Center digs. As the portal of the paid turns into a portal for the people, the stated goal is to get every one of AOL.com’s 109.7 unique monthly visitors (not far behind Yahoo, they’re quick to remind you) to make that one extra click. Whatever a visitor clicks, AOL.com will monetize, either by displaying an ad, or dangling the brass rings of e-commerce and subscription services.

David Liu, VP and general manager of AOL.com, hopes to see the end of what he calls “one-hit wonder visitors.” To that end, the retooled AOL.com is pulling out all the stops to encourage visitors to linger and to circulate. Rest assured, this is being done with the advertiser experience just as top-of-mind as the visitor’s.

Is Less More?

Will AOL’s “more time, more pages” strategy work? That level of user engagement is a good idea…sometimes. It’s not the worst approach for a portal, though very unlikely to occur overnight. But as Marianne Caponnetto, IBM’s director of worldwide media strategy and operations, gently observed at the OPA breakfast, “Time spent can be a very negative experience.” (In fairness, she wasn’t talking about AOL.com.)

Immersive isn’t always the goal. Consider search engines; the faster you’re outta there, the better your experience. Quick hits are better than no hits at all, something advertisers are well aware of. Discussing broadband video advertising at the breakfast, Carat NA CEO David Verklin stated, “the shorter the ad, the better they [the audience members] like it.”

Consumers may be spending more time online, but there’s evidence that time is fragmenting into ever-quicker hits, and into quicker, more fragmented formats. Ross Settles, Knight-Ridder Digital’s VP of strategic marketing, says his company currently publishes some 60 editorial blogs, and is adding more at the rate of 10 to 20 per week. “RSS requires us to continually update the news,” he added. The aim? To create a form of “social media” that maintains a one-on-one conversation with the individual visitor. In such an environment, he claims, “an ad is considered content by a community facing itself.”

Is that how advertisers want their ads to be perceived? Not all of them — yet. “A lot of our clients are a little nervous about being on sites where people chat,” said Verklin, adding, “We’ll get there.” While you and I ponder how immersive a site should be versus how efficient, no small number of Carat’s blue chip clients still don’t know how Yahoo or Google generate revenue, according to the agency’s head. (“But…they’re free!”)

The only way to determine if More is Better (and if it is, under which circumstances) is to develop more ways to qualify rather than just quantify, online experiences. “We run the risk of blowing ourselves up with CPC,” laments IBM’s Caponnetto, “we’re missing the opportunity to do more qualitative measurements.”

Verklin rather conversely see a need for more quantitative offline metrics. He predicts that the cashier at Radio Shack’s register, rather than request a customer’s ZIP code, will ask, “Did you go online prior to making this purchase?”

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