Online Advertising Glossary: Sponsorships

Judging from the volume of email we’re getting on this topic, a lot of people seem to be as frustrated as we are about the constantly shifting sands of advertising-related definitions.

So, let’s make nice and start with things we all can agree on. First, there are banners and buttons. The Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) has made everyone’s job easier by setting standard sizes for banners, buttons and micro buttons. (Click here to get details on standard sizes for each.) We all also know an interstitial when we see one those are the ones that pop up uninvited as the screen is loading.

What Makes a Sponsorship a Sponsorship?

So far so good. Ready to move onto thornier ground? Here’s a favorite of ours: sponsorships. In an advertising context, we define a sponsorship as a paid effort from an advertiser to tie its name to information, an event, or a venue that reinforces its brand in a positive, yet not overtly commercial manner.

Offline, think major sports or charity events or support of educational or not-for-profit institutions. Sometimes, there is a direct tie-in with the underlying purpose of the company such as sponsorship of a topically related conference but many times, there is no obvious connection between the company and the thing that is being sponsored. And that’s OK since, in their classic form, sponsorships are about branding, not about immediate sales. A sponsorship is but one piece of a larger plan to create a warm glow in the heart of consumers whenever they see the brand.

How do sponsorships translate online? Actually, pretty well. There are some direct corollaries such as sponsorships of online trade shows and conferences or the sponsorship of a relevant topical channel on a portal. We tend to see less of the charitable giving/non-profit/sporting event form of sponsorship online.

A common form of sponsorship is the advertorial, which we mentioned in last week’s column. A good example of this is Crayola’s sponsorship of an arts and crafts column on a parenting site. (And to the cynics among you, No, not all the art projects involved the heavy use of crayons.)

So where are we running into definitional problems? Many sites we’ve worked with insist that anything that doesn’t rotate like a typical banner or a button is a sponsorship. They’ll often tell us that they are holding a certain amount of their banner inventory for “sponsorships.” Now, we call those “permanent banners,” but beyond the semantics, why does it matter?

Here’s why in our opinion. If it looks like a banner, both consumers and advertisers judge it like a banner. And when that happens, the intent and power of the sponsorship are diluted.

Think about it. Most users don’t visit a given site regularly enough or pay enough attention to the advertising to say to themselves (consciously or unconsciously): “Hey! That brand.com banner is always on the home page. They must be one heck of a company.” If they register anything at all, it’s probably more like “God. There’s that brand.com banner again. I’m sick of seeing that. Don’t they have any other advertisers?”

Contrast that with the Crayola example where a more typical (unconscious) reaction might be: “Those are pretty cool art projects. I thought they only did crayons. I should look more carefully at the other Crayola stuff when I’m at the store.”

And, by the way, since it looks just like a banner, guess how the average marketer is going to judge it? They’ll be looking at the same click-throughs, conversion rates or any metric that they use to evaluate their banner buys. And given what we know about targeting and banner burn-out, how well do you think that static banner is going to do over the course of the three-month buy? Also, guess which version of sponsorship is going to result in higher effective CPMs for the site?

So, this “sponsorship” buy has inadvertently created the worst of two worlds little branding value and lousy direct response results. The bottom line: Our definition of sponsorship is the linking of a brand with related content or context for the purpose of creating brand awareness and strengthening brand appeal in a form that is clearly distinguishable from a banner, button, or other standardized ad unit.

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