On- and Offline Advertising Go Hand in Hand

Jonathan Rosenberg, Google’s VP of product management, kicked up a little storm last week when he talked about why Prada should pull its ads from “Vanity Fair” and buy Google keywords instead: “Prada would pay ’28 cents for a click to the site where someone wants to buy the bag, versus a dime for an ad in a magazine page that may or may not be seen.'”

Rosenberg’s right, of course. With a full-page ad costing about $100,000 and “Vanity Fair” boasting a readership of about a million, the cost for the hope of someone just seeing the ad is about $0.10 per reader. Whether readers actually spot the page among all the others that make up a typical issue is impossible to measure. It’s the traditional ad model: put something in front of people and hope they see it.

This is exactly the kind of thing I talked about last time, so I won’t harp on it here. But using the Web to directly reach consumers who are ready to act versus putting the idea in peoples’ heads that they might want to buy a pricey bag is the core difference between on- and offline marketing. There are plenty of direct response offline ads, but they’re still inherently less measurable, less targetable, and less impulse-driven than online ads.

Reaching directly into the consumer decision stream and immediately facilitating a sale may be one of the most disruptive aspects of networked interactive media. Unlike traditional methods, which require consumers to make an effort through several steps (and several potentially irritating car trips) to purchase, online can grab the impulse when it happens. We’ve know for a long time online brand advertising works, but grabbing consumers at the point they want to buy is the Web’s real power.

Yet things are going to get a lot more complicated soon. “The New York Times” stirred up controversy recently by declaring “The End of Shopping” is near. The article posits new technology that links cell phones to shopping bots to provide best-price data when scanned over a product barcode will permanently change shopping as we know it. “Should the ‘shopping phone’ fulfill its promise,” writes Walter Kirn, “deep discounts will become standard and universal, and stores will have to seek an edge in less familiar ways — perhaps by dressing their workers in clingy costumes the way Las Vegas casinos do.”

Whether stores go Vegas to attract consumers or become bare-bones product-viewing warehouses is impossible to predict and fairly irrelevant, depending on too many factors. The point is online technology that can insert itself into the buying process at the point of decision is disruptive, whether you’re talking about consumers purchasing Prada bags located via Google or shopping for new washing machines, armed with the best prices available in the world. And it’s gonna change a lot of how the retail world works.

But don’t write off traditional advertising yet. Let’s examine how the consumer makes the Prada decision in the first place. Fashionistas aside, nobody really needs a Prada bag. The decision to buy (like so many things) is driven by desire. And that desire has to come from somewhere, most likely from exposure to the product in real life as well as desire engendered in the kinds of stylish, beautiful advertising Prada does in “Vanity Fair.” Google keywords can’t engender desire; they can only facilitate the purchase process. That’s where the difference is and where the online/offline intersection becomes a lot clearer.

Using interactive to facilitate the move from desire to buying or to help consumers get the best price at the point of purchase is what the Web is really good for. Interactive can grease the skids, but someone must be on the skids to begin with, something traditional advertising is particularly good at. By going too far either way — rejecting interactive out of fear or rejecting traditional advertising for being too old fashioned — we risk not utilizing each medium for what it’s best at. Prada probably shouldn’t stop advertising in “Vanity Fair,” but it’d better make it a lot easier for someone to find its bags via Google.

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