Online Advertising’s Stunted Growth

This is my last column for ClickZ, and it’s been a great couple of years.

A lot has happened since my first column in June 2005. Video advertising continues to blossom, and rich media is a standard part of nearly every media plan. Online advertising spending continues its ascent, with nary a sign of letting up. Consumer habits are evolving, and social media is a daily part of their lives.

A rosy picture, isn’t it?

Not so fast.

This industry, including publishers, agencies, and marketers, is stunting its growth and limiting its potential. You wouldn’t know it by all the M&A activity surrounding these captains of industry, but, trust me, it’s a big problem. It’s like the interactive industry is an advanced second grader the school doesn’t know how to handle, so he’s placed in third grade for half the day. The student may be recognized as intelligent, but he’ll have a difficult time being socially accepted.

If we are to advance on our own merits, we must make some fundamental changes to the way we strategize, sell, buy, and provide online advertising. The following are but a few items we must address before we can be officially labeled “mature”:

  • Look hard at metrics and the fat part of the funnel. A move toward using engagement metrics and away from direct response metrics is a step in the right direction. We must understand the actions people take within our advertising, because that’s what makes us different. The ability to measure, optimize, and analyze this kind of data is a gift. It’s our duty to take full advantage of it.
  • Adopt standards. But don’t be afraid to amend them. Standards can be confining and commoditizing, but we need them. Although this industry has potentially limitless scale, to scale we need minimum standards. The Interactive Advertising Bureau has taken the lead on standards historically, but it need not be the only one. The responsibility lies with whoever has the knowledge and experience to bring them forth.

    Once these standards are established and accepted, they’re supposed to change periodically. Update them frequently.

  • Social media properties are an entirely different medium. Facebook isn’t The Onion. MySpace isn’t iVillage. Media buyers must think differently about these properties. Heck, maybe we need different media buyers specifically for social media properties. Sellers have to sell them differently too. And advertisers? Think long and hard about developing long-term social media strategies.
  • Be as creative with media planning and buying as with creative. Creativity shouldn’t stop with the ad creative. In fact, it should begin with the overall strategy. Creative should be developed alongside media planning to create experiences that bring consumers closer to brands, closer to the medium, and closer to each other.
  • Be a thought leader! Have an opinion, and make it known. Be smart. Take a stand. If you’re an agency or a publisher, you’ve got a responsibility to yourself to differentiate. Why not differentiate by exhibiting your ability to drive the industry forward?

Take these suggestions and run with them. Share them with your colleagues. If we heed them, we can keep this industry hurtling forward responsibly.

Thanks so much for your readership over these last few years. I’ve always appreciated your thoughts, your feedback, and your attention.

Stay tuned for my replacement. You’re going to love him.

Related reading