Online Ad Sellers Push Branding

NEW YORK — The online ad industry’s push for credibility reached a crescendo Wednesday, as representatives from the Interactive Advertising Bureau and major publishers lined up to unveil research designed to convince advertisers that the medium is effective as a branding channel.

Released in an extensive production at DoubleClick headquarters in New York — and Webcast live — separate studies from the IAB, DoubleClick and MSN all touted Internet ads’ ability to increase brand awareness, tagline/message association, purchase intent and brand favorability.

“The point is to show that online advertising works,” said IAB president and chief executive Robin Webster. “If that’s all you leave here with today, I can go home happy.”

Clearly, however, there’s much more at stake for the industry. Earlier Wednesday, media titan AOL Time Warner reported lower-than-expected revenues for second quarter, and its first sequential decrease in online advertising revenue. And last week, DoubleClick hinted at impending layoffs, as it continues to project weakness in the sector for months to come.

The efficacy of online advertising — or questions about it — aren’t the only thing dragging down these companies. Several factors — including the overall downturn of the economy, the general bad ad market, and the failure of so many dot-coms — have had a negative effect.

Still, although online advertising has now become well-established as a direct marketing medium, it’s thought that proving its branding efficacy is critical to attracting traditional advertisers to the fledgling medium — and, therefore, critical to the survival of many online ad companies. After all, consumers are unlikely to click-through to buy Coca-Cola or Dawn Dishwashing Liquid, but the companies that make these products have big bucks to spend on advertising, and the push to convice them to spend them online has unified the community of Internet media sellers in an unprecedented effort.

One of the fruits of that effort, the IAB study, examined creatives from advertisers Genuity, Vaniqua, uBid.com and Coca-Cola, run on CNET, iWon.com, MSN, and Snowball.com, respectively. Conducted by online ad research firm Dynamic Logic, visitor surveys showed a 3.5 percent to 11.2 percent increase in brand awareness and a 6.6 percent to 41.6 percent increase in message association, depending on the creatives used (larger ad units fared better than standard banners.)

Additionally, the study from the New York-based IAB concluded that multiple ad exposures could increase purchase intent (by up to 18 percent with four exposures) and brand favorability (up to 12.3 percent, also with four impressions).

Likewise, the MSN study — which was also conducted using consumer surveys by New York-based Dynamic Logic — showed that the largest ad units and rich media formats had a brand impact, increasing awareness and message retention. MSN reported a 14 percent increase in brand awareness using either skyscrapers ads or Dynamic HTML, a 31.25 increase using skyscrapers and a 20 percent increase using Flash.

In its own report, DoubleClick chimed in with findings that echoed the other two — saying that larger ads and rich media creatives have an effect on brand awareness — up to 13.4 and 12 percent, respectively. Additionally, DoubleClick’s Diameter research unit looked at different ad placements, and concluded that all ads had at least a marginal impact on brand awareness, although interstitials enjoyed the greatest increase, 15.5 percent.

However encouraging, the efforts are still scattershot, stopgap measures. For one, the studies test only “aided” ad awareness, in which a survey asks respondents to select the ad they saw from a list, rather than entering it without the use of a list. The surveys also generally appeared immediately after seeing the ad under scrutiny, organizers said.

The reports also don’t consider advertising decay, which is the amount of time it takes for an impression to be forgotten by a viewer. Nor do they look at consumer annoyance to noisy or obtrusive ads, or ad units with a long download time.

For their part, the participants in Wednesday’s press event reiterated that such subjects were outside of the realm of the studies. Still, Webster and others conceded that much had been left uncovered — and promised future research would flesh out more of the issues.

At any rate, the online publishing sector is committed to convincing advertisers of its worth, even if it’s through more well-orchestrated presentations showcasing studies they both fund and conduct. But so far, whether more industry-friendly reports would be enough to significantly influence media buyers ultimately remains as yet unproven by any party — including the publishers themselves.

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