Make an Impact Offline, With Online

In my last column, I talked about the design and its effect on the credibility of your sites. For you designers or creative types out there, this probably made a lot of sense. For you MBA-totin’, hard-driving marketing types, the design angle may have breezed over your head. “Design” is one of those soft, squishy concepts best left to the creatives in their black turtlenecks, right? OK, OK. I may not agree with you, but let me throw something out there that might grab you by the bespoke lapels and shake you up a little bit: Soft, squishy stuff such as brand and credibility online can have a huge impact on your offline bottom line.

For a long time, those of us in Internet-marketing-land have been marketing and advertising in what seems to be a different universe than that of our colleagues in “traditional” media. While the big bucks (and creative talent) go to offline advertising (allowing for a moment the effects of the dot-bomb bubble), online buys and strategies have often been relegated to the second string or, in many cases, the “interactive folks” off in a corner of the building. Sure, many of the big advertisers and leading brands haven’t fallen into these traps, but holistic integration doesn’t always flow down from the Procter & Gambles of the world to the rest of the great unwashed. Instead, agencies are confronted with preset “online” budgets based on what’s left over (rather than what’s right) and not-so-subtle eye rolls from clients who think they’ve “done that Web thing” in the past and have been disappointed with the results. Big online budgets seem downright 20th-century today.

Implicit in all this is the unspoken feeling that what happens online stays online. Sure, online ads may “work” (depending on the metric du jour), but they aren’t seen as having an impact in the “real” world, especially with regard to brand. They may directly drive some offline sales (look to the automotive industry for plenty of examples of this), but… well, the online stuff just isn’t important to the whole brand strategy, right?

Wrong. These days, when the Web has become nearly telephone-like in its ubiquity and utility, what happens online actually has a big impact on what goes on offline — to sales, market share, and brands. Especially brands.

Need some proof? Check out some of the results from the long-running American Internet User Survey, recently acquired by The Dieringer Research Group. This study, in process since 1998, has a lot to say, but for our purposes we’ll look at what it says about brand online and interactive’s offline impact. This should make you b-school types sit up and take notice.

The summary points out that nearly 40 million U.S. consumers have had their opinions of offline brands changed by what they’ve found online. Nearly half of U.S. online adults have changed their opinion about a brand because of their online interactions, and nearly one quarter have switched brands at purchase because of their online experiences.

What happens online impacts what happens offline with a brand, that much is clear. The Web is not an alternate universe with its own brand rules. Pam Renick, executive VP of the Diereinger Research Group puts it simply: “Marketers concerned about brand management need to be sure their Web sites and online interactions are consistent with the overall brand image their companies want to convey.”

But this branding effect isn’t necessarily isolated to shopping sites. The intricate Web (pun intended) of brand relationships also carries over to the very sites we choose to put our ads on. A study recently released by the Online Publishers Association shows that brands can be impacted by the sites they choose to advertise on. Users with a high affinity for a media site were more likely to have a high opinion of the ads on the site than those with a low affinity for the site. Basically, if someone likes the site you’re advertising on, the better they’ll like your ad and, by extension, the more positively they’ll feel about your brand. Think about this next time you’re tempted to buy some cheapo advertising on a not-so reputable site or want to go with some run-of-network or other opaque deal.

Brand matters. As we’ve seen, online can impact offline perception of brand, as can online ad placement. When considering the full impact of your communications on your brand, you no longer have the luxury of seeing the communications world divided into alternate universes. More and more, online is becoming the medium to reach certain segments, and, in all cases, what you do online impacts all your consumers’ perception of your brand. Offline or online, it’s all the same brand — and in these tough economic times when we’re all facing increased competition, your brand may just be your most important asset.

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