Maybe It’s the Marketing

Three things caught my attention last week: a “Buzz Marketing” post about click fraud, an “Ad Age” article about Yahoo’s sense of slowing online ad sales, and my own experience buying a song on Napster. What struck me was these three seemingly disconnected experiences are actually manifestations of the same thing: contemporary marketing and the various ways it’s practiced.

First, the article on click fraud. We all recognize the issue, and I’d bet most of us agree it’s a problem. I’d also assert it goes with the territory, to a certain extent. It’s like shrinkage in retail: you build it into your campaign and evaluate the medium on its performance against other media. On that basis, you either buy more or less the next time around.

Paul Dunay asks toward the end of his post, “What if you click on an ad (and I know you have), but change your mind as it is trying to load? Are you committing click fraud?”

I’ve got a better question: what if, while acting from your consumer brain rather you’re your marketer brain, you purposely click on every poorly built, mass-produced search ad you’re presented with? You know which ones I’m taking about: you’re doing political client research and search for “reform.” You get ads like “Looking for Reform. Find exactly what you want today” on eBay! If only it were that simple. When someone sees an ad that just doesn’t make sense and nonetheless clicks, does it constitute fraud? Or just curiosity? (“I wonder what they could be selling?”) Almost invariably, what they’re selling is more advertising.

Yahoo announced its online ad sales are slowing. CEO Terry Semel pointed to weakness in automotive and financial services. Having recently purchased a 10-year-old Mercedes in which I use a biodiesel rather than a new car requiring petroleum, I can understand the weakness in the auto industry. On the financial services side, in my neighborhood there’s a bank on every corner. There are more banks than there are Walgreens and Shell stations combined. I guess advertisers are starting to figure out intrusive buys on sites like Yahoo, using the same creative and planning approach they use for TV (“interrupt me”), just doesn’t cut it.

Apply the same logic any smart marketer would to the click fraud problem and the likely result seems pretty obvious: unless we change the way interactive marketing works in these types of campaigns, alternate channels will receive a greater share of the spend. In Yahoo’s slowing ad sales and the significance of click fraud, the medium isn’t the issue. Yahoo’s a great property. The problem is the way the medium is used. Put on your consumer hat and take a hard look. Most online advertising looks a lot like the Vegas strip. Consumers are wearing sunglasses, even at night. They’ve learned not to look.

Which brings me to Napster. About a week ago, I was listening to a Spanish-language FM station in Austin, TX, when I heard the tail end of a song I really like. There was no mention of the artist in the break. Then, on Saturday evening as I was driving back to Austin, I wondered if the station was playing the song. I switched on the station and, sure enough, it was playing this song in the background. The DJ mentioned a new single by Paulina. I thought to myself, “Paulina who?”

When I got home I searched for “Paulina” in Google. The first organic listing was “Paulina Rubio.” I clicked and a really great site built by e-Volution opened. As it loaded, the song began to play. I hopped over to my Napster account and within 30 seconds had purchased and downloaded the single from Paulina Rubio’s new album. While there, I also bought a single from Seattle’s “Band of Horses,” whom I’d heard recently on KINK-FM in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

This is how interactive marketing is supposed to work. None of this happened in a vacuum. There was FM radio, Internet radio, a well-built music service application, a great Web site, and a solid search optimization effort effectively connected all the dots. And my identity really didn’t matter. How do you plan to market a Latin pop singer to a 50-year-old, biodiesel-using Anglo in Austin? Yet this is exactly what the combined on- and offline Paulina marketing effort accomplished. It’s pretty clear the marketers didn’t target me. Instead, they made sure they were in the places I’d find out about Paulina if I was interested. Then, they were ready to pull me the rest of the way.

Is click fraud a big problem? I don’t know, nor does it really to matter outside the industry. I do know bad search ads will continue to waste money. Slumping online ad sales? It’s pretty clear some of the most desirable consumers have learned to avoid intrusive ads wherever they appear. This is just as applicable online as off-. The impact, lower ROI (define) for the campaign in question, forces the issue of reevaluating allocation and spend. At the same time, comprehensive plays that leverage a half-dozen channels and can weave together a net that catches, supports, and guides consumers looking to buy seems just as smart as ever.

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