Online Advertising Glossary: Part 1

Well, last week’s column sure got some reaction!

For those of you who missed it, we issued a challenge to the Internet advertising industry (yes, to each one of you!) to clean up the use of language, clarify definitions, and get some common agreement on the way we use the terms that define our business.

We see a real need for some standardization of meaning, so everyone knows what we are all talking about when we discuss the business of advertising, sponsorships, partnerships, pricing strategies and the like online.

The response was overwhelming! Some wrote to tell us we were crazy to hope for such a thing. Others jumped in with their own favorite definitions. Still others wrote with additional questions about terms that confuse them. One deep thinker wrote that static definitions can’t work in a real-time, fast-changing market, and that we need to focus instead on dynamic responses to customers’ needs if we are to succeed. Lots of good food for thought.

Rather than answer each email, we’ll be using this column as a forum for addressing what we hear from you, and where that takes us.

Webster’s Definition

Last week we used Webster’s definition of advertising as “the action of calling something to the attention of the public especially by paid announcements.”

In our usage, drawn from long histories in marketing before anyone was thinking about advertising online, advertising is an umbrella term that refers to all paid messaging to communicate with an audience. Banners, buttons, sponsorships, logo listings, paid directory listings, and the dozens of other ad forms offered by web sites are all ad products. There are variations in the way messages are formatted, but all are forms of advertising.

One form of advertising is not, in our opinion, better or worse than any other; different ad products, on different sites, are better suited to different purposes, and knowing the objectives of your ad campaign is an essential first step to determining which ad product makes best sense for you.

In the Internet market, we often hear folks refer to “advertising” when they really mean “banners,” as if to say that their predilection for more customized sponsorship execution makes those buys something other than advertising. That’s the equivalent of saying that TV spots are advertising, but newspaper ads are not, just because they take a different form. In that context it sounds absurd to re-define what is and is not advertising, doesn’t it?

What about “advertorials”? In the print world, an advertorial is an advertisement, usually in a special advertising section, that has a content or editorial component, so that it looks and feels more like editorial, but with a clear ad message. Many print publications charge a premium for advertorials because the good editorial reputation of the publication helps contextualize the advertiser’s message and increases the impact.

Most reputable journalists insist that advertorials be labeled as such, so the reader is not confused about what has editorial independence and what is advertiser sponsored. Online, those lines are blurring (and are altogether invisible on some sites), but the fact remains that advertorials combine editorial content with the ad message to make it more valuable and attractive to the intended audience.

Sponsorships online can take an advertorial form, or any number of other forms, and clarification of the meaning of various forms of sponsorships is something we’ll tackle in greater depth next week. For now, suffice it to say that the term “sponsorship” is used broadly to mean almost any form of custom-designed ad placement, or any advertising not rotated through the ad server.

OK, are you now more confused than before? That’s the problem with trying to clear things up they often get muddier on the way to the end goal. Do you have other meanings for any of the above that you feel ought to be considered? Let us know where you have favorite meanings or word uses, or where there are uses you’ve heard that you’d like to tackle here. Over the next several weeks, we hope to identify all the areas of confusion around these issues and lay the groundwork for a real glossary we can all use.

Please send your questions to, and we’ll keep reporting on and responding to what we hear from you.

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