In Online Advertising, Context Is King

When I got into the business of digital marketing back in 1994, one of the Web’s promises to advertisers was that it could target messages to consumers in ways that television, radio, and print never could.

I was never impressed with the way large advertisers used mass media to go after certain demographic audiences without regard for context. The Web offered me a unique opportunity to show advertisers not only how to reach the right people, but how to reach them in the right place and at the right time.

A Mass Medium It Ain’t

Throughout my career as an online media planner, I’ve most admired the campaigns that have that magical combination of reaching the right people in the right place in the most appropriate manner. Yet, as I surf the Web seven years after it has become a commercial medium, I find myself exposed to advertising messages that are irrelevant to my surfing habits and state of mind. This shows me that advertisers still don’t understand the Web’s unique targetability.

Why aren’t online advertisers taking advantage of the one-to-one marketing principles we’ve heard so much about over the past few years?

To demonstrate the opportunities that I think advertisers are missing by not addressing prospects in the right time, place, and manner, maybe it would be wise to take a look at some of the sites I’ve visited over the past few days to see if any of the advertisers have done a respectable job of targeting ads to me.

Looking for the Right Ad

Last Sunday night, I had an out-of-town guest and wanted to go out to a restaurant. The weather was beautiful in New York, so I logged on to the Web to find a nice restaurant with outdoor dining. My first stop was Citysearch. I clicked on its Restaurants section and then provided some search parameters. I wanted to go to a place that had outdoor dining, but I didn’t want to travel across town, so I told Citysearch I wanted to find restaurants within a mile of my home ZIP code. What banner showed up across the top of the page? A New York Lotto ad.

New York Lotto did a pretty good job of getting to the right person. Yes, I live in New York, so this ad made a lot more sense than, say, a Connecticut Lotto ad. But what was that ad doing in the Restaurants section? Why wasn’t I served an ad for a restaurant that would fulfill my needs at the time? I give NY Lotto a B- for targeting my geographic location but an F for targeting me when I was thinking about restaurants and not about giant cash payouts.

Next, I was off to the Van Halen News Desk, to see whether David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen have been able to put aside their differences and put together a reunion tour. I was in for a surprise. According to an announcement on the site, my favorite guitarist is fighting cancer. I spent 20 minutes on the site, feeling really crappy and upset about the whole thing while reading press coverage of Eddie’s statement about his fight with the disease. I look up to the top of the page and see that broad-reach Classmates.com banner — the one that consistently ends up in Nielsen’s top ratings every week.

Where was the CDNOW ad for the remastered early Van Halen albums? Or an ad for David Lee Roth’s autobiography from Amazon? If I had seen an ad for a cancer charity at that point, I would have probably fished out my credit card and given a donation online. Instead, I see an ad that has absolutely no relevance to what I’m doing or how I’m feeling at the time. What a waste.

On Monday, when I got home from work, it was time to find something for my out-of-town guest and me to do. We visited Moviefone.com to check out what was playing at the neighborhood theaters and decided to go see “Blow” at the Orpheum on Third Avenue. As I progressed through the online ticket-ordering process, I saw a commercial message. If I used my American Express card to pay for the tickets, I could take advantage of a “Buy 10, get 1 free” offer from AmEx. I purchase movie tickets online whenever I go to the movies, so this was a great deal for me. After I dug into my wallet to find my American Express card and completed the transaction, Moviefone told me that I have to buy only eight more tickets before I can get one free.

Getting Everything Right

Folks, this is a great example of online marketing done right. American Express addressed me with the right message, at the right time, and in the right manner. I got an offer that would help me enjoy movies, right when I was thinking about movies. No, I didn’t have to click on a banner right in the middle of the purchase process to go fill out a form on the American Express Web site. All I had to do was use my AmEx card instead of my MasterCard. Guess what? That ad changed my usual behavior, and it will continue to do so every time I visit the Moviefone site. I give it an A+ for targeting, an A+ for the message, and an A+ for the manner in which I was addressed.

It pains me to see that online advertisers often treat the Web as a mass medium by targeting only the right people. Online ads could be a great deal more powerful and compelling if they also reached those people in the right context. This is why I see online media planning as an art form. No, it’s not enough to design an online ad campaign to find your audience on the Web. Your ad campaign is much more effective when it finds the right people in the right mindset.

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