Online Display Advertising Needs Better PR

For the last several years, search has been the media darling and the go-to tactic for marketers. Easy to understand, launch, and justify because current analytics often give it most of the conversion or lead credit, search also gets more than its share of the budget. While behavioral targeting has been getting marketer and media attention and budget of late, not all the attention has been positive. Privacy concerns have cast a shadow on behavioral targeting. Even before the privacy taint, display advertising suffered generally by comparison to the easy sell of search and by a lack of understanding and awareness. Online display advertising definitely needs better public relations to sell its innovation and contribution.

It really needn’t be framed as search versus display, but in the real world most budgets are typically a zero-sum game in which channels fight for their share of wallet. Search remains the budget must-have in a fully integrated online world that for most marketers should include not just behavioral targeting or types of display advertising but also social networks, mobile, or other credible, viable online channels.

Given the current business environment, it’s not surprising display seems to struggle for its piece of the pie. Economic instability means money is being bet on the sure thing. Opportunity costs aren’t considered in this kind of environment. But though it remains hard to quantify, recent studies have demonstrated the essential contribution of display ads to overall campaign results. Brand marketers understand the value of impressions and memorable messaging, but online remains largely a direct marketing realm that rewards the last point of consumer contact prior to a sale or conversion. This last touch point has the perception of ultimate value when, in fact, many contributing factors should share credit. An exceptional marketer understands these fine points.

Reality and perception may be shifting on the counting front. Atlas is changing its conversion attribution model to reflect multiple touch points on the road to conversion, and others are following suit. Once the analytics portray a clearer picture, metaphorical display ad stock is sure to rise, and perhaps actual stock as well. Recent moves by Google and MSN are read by many as an acknowledgement of their need to be in the display space.

Why Display’s Bad Rap?

Display ads feel more intrusive and disruptive, especially in light of publicity over privacy concerns. When you say “display,” people (including your C-suite) think of the flashing pop-ups, those intrusive, obnoxious, and sometimes threatening ads that ruin the online experience and erode brand equity and customer relationships. No one wants to be associated with that. Display ads also depend more on multiple, expensive creative executions. Search, in contrast, relies on creative ad copy, but that’s more manageable until you multiply the effort by tens of thousands of keywords. Even then, search copy has the patina of science often produced in a precise, formulaic effort.

In many cases, the executive suite has an incomplete understanding of online display advertising, how it works, or how it differentiates from and contributes to other channel results. Many decision makers respond to the hard numbers that search can boast and stop there. Insufficient budgets dictate they max out on the pull part of the customer equation without pushing out the advertising that creates awareness and new customers, ultimately ensuring growth and prosperity. Though it’s hard to sell against the quick, reliable buck, this represents short-term thinking at its worst. An inadequate talent pool in this rapidly growing industry makes it tough for many to confidently articulate or prove the case for long-term results with the necessary experience, channel testing, or a combination of tactics.

Display demands faith in the current climate, a large financial commitment, and more time to see results. The long-term results from a strong, consistent display ad program can absolutely be proven with an expanded customer base, increased awareness, and even direct response metrics like intent to buy.

While search is a strong driver in online advertising growth, the smart money will diversify campaign portfolios to meet both long- and short-term needs. Search, display, and other forms of online communication and engagement vehicles should be partners in a single marketing objective. A one-dimensional program is limiting. While search may currently have the better sound bites, it pays to look deeper at the strategic and tactical advantages that display offers: a rich environment for message association and audience engagement, a dynamic capability to respond to profile data, the ability to sequence messaging, the list goes on and on. Maybe it’s too complex for a sound bite. Maybe that’s the problem.

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