Internet Advertising: Do We Need the Broadest Reach?

The Internet hits 60 percent penetration in the United States and, suddenly, everyone gets excited. Even USA Today ran a story this Monday in its “Life” section about the rapid growth of the Internet.

It points out that although the Internet has penetrated our lives very quickly, some experts believe that the Net won’t be as ubiquitous as television for at least another 10 to 15 years. Meanwhile, many in our industry cheer the Internet’s quick growth as if the medium were somehow in competition with television for the broadest reach.

The Internet Delivers Interests and Lifestyles

We should know better. As media buyers, we should be quick to note that the Internet doesn’t work on the broadcast model. It doesn’t seem likely to me that someone will be able to put a commercial message on the Internet that reaches all or most of the total Internet population instantly (or even within a reasonable length of time).

The strength of the Internet as a commercial medium lies in its ability to deliver interests and lifestyles, not broad reach to a general audience. Want to sell more soft drinks? Well, if you use the Internet to do so, it’s not about blasting Internet ads out to anyone and everyone regardless of context and hoping that your soft-drink message will keep your brand at the top of consumers’ minds across the country or the world. It’s about aligning your brand with specific lifestyles and content, and building not only its awareness but also its relevance to the lives of the people you are reaching.

All Users Are Different

While Nielsen//NetRatings pegs U.S. Internet penetration at 60 percent, we have to remember that the people making up that 60 percent all use the Internet in different ways. There is currently no way to reach them all simultaneously. They all might visit different Web sites at different times of the day. Even if they browse the same Web sites, they might use them differently. One Yahoo user might surf sports every day while his next-door neighbor might use stock quotes sporadically. An Internet user might not even use the Web at all — email is currently the most popular Internet application.

The Internet as a commercial medium might have a high penetration, and it might even approach TV’s ubiquity one day, but its consumption is more closely related to that of magazines. Like magazines, Internet communities and the people who compose them tend to organize around common interests and lifestyles. Content is self-selected. While you and I might share an allegiance to ClickZ to satisfy our need for Internet-marketing-related information, I’d be willing to bet that there are perhaps only a small handful of fellow ClickZ readers who visit the Van Halen News Desk religiously (as do I) in hopes of hearing about a David Lee Roth reunion tour.

My point is that each Internet user makes use of the Internet in a unique way. In my mind, what makes the World Wide Web a web is not the fact that it exists as a series of linked sites, but that it is an amalgamation of nonexclusive communities. A ClickZ reader can also be a Slashdot geek and someone who regularly bids on original artwork on eBay, while the ClickZ reader sitting down the hall might be more the Salon type who reads half-a-dozen Drew Barrymore Fan Club newsletters every week.

Reach Those Who Matter

The Holy Grail is reaching the people who can identify with your brand in the appropriate place and manner. Coca-Cola shouldn’t be blasting the Internet with Coke ads in an attempt to mirror its TV strategy. Maybe it should be running ads on all the Van Halen-related Web sites, letting fans know that Coke is sponsoring a summer tour — as part of a larger strategy of not only reaching soft-drink consumers, but reaching them in a way that makes the brand relevant to their lives.

Yes, we should be excited that the Internet is growing so quickly. But we should be excited for different reasons. Maybe in the coming years, we will have the ability to reach almost anyone in the world through the Internet. But what we should be thinking about is not when this will be possible, but how we will execute it appropriately.

To fail to leverage the synergy between a brand and an Internet community is to fail to use the medium to its full extent. Those who explore the different ways that their brand touches people all over the world, and leverage the essence of those relationships, will be the ones who succeed in Internet marketing.

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