Online Advertising: Taking Over the Web?

If you spend a lot of time surfing the Web, you’ve probably noticed a change in the advertising as of late. Suddenly, ads are appearing in some unique places and assuming unfamiliar forms.

Given recent statistics, it’s easy to establish why. According to a report released by Nielsen/NetRatings, the top traditional (offline) advertisers increased their online share 30 percent by the end of last year. These same companies are deemed “more apt to experiment with different ad formats.”

It’s this willingness to try new approaches combined with increased ad clutter and more competition among advertisers that’s changing the online landscape into something more advertising oriented than we’ve yet seen.

Offline, marketers have long used every possible medium as a vehicle for promoting products and services. Some say no publicly viewed surface is safe from the armies of media strategists. Now that the initial thrill of banner ads is a distant memory and advertisers are unafraid to experiment, it stands to reason advertising would show up in new places online: in advertorials, in strategic publisher/advertiser microsite partnerships, and on previously ad-free sites that still maintain bannerless formats.

The trend is being embraced by traditional advertisers and online publishers. It demands analysis from the consumer perspective. We know many consumers still don’t appreciate that advertising is necessary to sustain free-content models. They’re weary of countless banners, rich media ads, and full-screen Internet commercials every time they go online. How will they react to even more intrusive advertising, appearing in places formerly safe from marketing incursions?

A few weeks ago, I came across a Fidelity Investments placement on Monster.com. To post a résumé on the famed job search site, users must first go through a registration process involving a fairly brief online form. After submitting it and viewing another registration-related page, the user receives a third page. This looks suspiciously like the original registration form. It’s not, however, part of the registration process. It’s an ad-sponsored means of database generation.

The form’s fields are prefilled with the personal information the user just provided, making it easy to click “submit,” hence approving Fidelity Investments’ use of that information. A small note at the top of the page lets users know they’ve successfully created a job search account, but the focus is the advertiser and the pitch: “seven helpful facts that you need to know about rolling over your 401(k).”

I’ve discussed what I call “integrated advertising.” I’ve praised advertisers for ingenuity forging successful, content-integrated online placements. This particular placement employs a similar strategy but appears at a time and in a place consumers would not expect a sponsored message. Does that make it equally ingenious? Or does it cross the line?

One could argue the advertiser and publisher are following the rules by identifying the section “My Monster Special Offers” and featuring appropriate disclaimers. Others would say it’s misleading, arguing consumers could easily misread the page’s purpose and what they agree to by resubmitting their personal data. Some may argue the placement is a deceptive attempt at database generation that could result in an unqualified list and a damaged brand image.

Regardless of how you interpret this type of online placement, it’s certain we can expect to see many more experimental advertising methods in the months to come. Advertising is bound to pour into nearly every nook and cranny of the Net as marketers seek their ideal approach. As a result, marketers and media buyers will be faced with a difficult decision: Follow these trailblazing traditional advertisers’ examples and use the Internet as a testing ground, or stick with relatively inoffensive, tried-and-true placements such as text links and paid search placements.

Those advocating the cautious route will take a wait-and-see approach. The Fortune 500s will whittle down their budgets until they find something that does work. It will be an interesting ride — even for those just watching from the sidelines.

Join us at the Jupiter ClickZ Advertising Forum in New York City on July 30 and 31.

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