Listen to the Audience

When it comes to planning an ad campaign, whether on- or offline, understanding your audience is the key to success. Seems like an obvious tenet, I know. But in the online world, where advertisers are constantly pushing the envelope to get their audience’s attention, consumer attitudes can change daily, making it increasingly difficult to answer that all-important question: What are consumers really thinking when they encounter an online ad?

The key to answering this question is getting inside people’s heads and trying to predict their reaction to the ad formats we employ. But for us media buyers, who spend so much of our time on the Internet that we’re completely immersed in online advertising, consumer attitudes are easily misconstrued. We personally feel so positively about online advertising (at least those of us who enjoy our jobs) that we often forget the majority of consumers just don’t share our fascination. When the time comes to plan a campaign, the buys we make are inevitably influenced by our own opinions and experiences. Instead of putting ourselves in our audience’s place, we may end up creating campaigns that cater primarily to us. This disconnect can make getting good results pretty tricky.

Fortunately, a little hard data is all we need to avoid disaster. Most buyers take the standard approach, turning to Internet research companies for figures on how consumers respond to various methods of advertising. Such figures undoubtedly assist our decision-making process when we’re choosing ad formats, but, regrettably, they quickly become dated.

There’s another solution, albeit slightly unconventional, that can help us get inside consumers’ heads. In a recent column, fellow ClickZ writer Bryan Eisenberg talked about the “Mom Test” as a method of analyzing the user-friendliness of your e-commerce site. This got me to thinking that a little self-conducted research might be just what media buyers need to supplement existing data. I decided to put this approach to the test, interviewing friends and relatives about the methods of online advertising they’ve encountered. The results were most interesting. Though some comments supported the research we’ve already seen, others provided much more insight into the consumer mindset.

The primary finding from my pseudo focus group was consumers respond to advertising that is relevant to the site they are visiting when they see it. As obvious as this may seem, many media buyers evade this golden rule when they sacrifice relevance for volume (a painful choice that is usually the product of an overextended budget). They still believe if they deliver enough ads and cast a broad enough net, they’ll stand a good chance of getting many more clicks than they would from those few costly impressions on a more relevant site.

But such advertising is routinely ignored or, worse, leaves consumers with a negative impression of the advertiser. As one panelist pointed out, consumers don’t go looking for online advertising, but if it relates to what they’re searching for they’ll respond. Whenever we hear consumers disparaging our industry, the advertisers who randomly flood the Net with ads are frequently cited as the source of their disdain.

Even more well liked than relevant site advertising were email newsletters and special email offers that cater to consumers’ individual needs. According to those I interviewed, opt-in advertising is gratefully accepted, especially when it’s personalized to their previously indicated interests and when it serves a specific purpose (offering Father’s Day gift suggestions, for example). The collective belief was that consumers won’t respond to an ad message they feel is being forced upon them. The nonconfrontational ads — those that consumers are expecting — will be given a fair chance.

One criticism that repeatedly came up relates to those “tricky” advertising tactics that attempt to sucker consumers into clicking on banner and pop-up ads. Smart consumers don’t appreciate being cheated, and ads that feature fake “close” buttons and simulated drop-down menus breed anger and mistrust. A simple banner with a concise ad message will attract your target audience and generate quality clicks, not to mention keeping them on your good side. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to sacrifice flash for functionality.

It’s easy for buyers to be sidetracked by our own views about online advertising and lose sight of how consumers feel about our industry. To succeed, we have to keep on top of fluctuating attitudes. Polling your friends may not turn you into an all-knowing, media-buying guru, but it can certainly give you some real insight into the potential success or failure of your next campaign. Try it! You may just uncover some surprising results.

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