Plan to Be Innovative

Sometimes I feel as if advertising on the Internet is a continual race to out-innovate the next guy.

When I look back on my years in the Internet ad business and the online ad campaigns that resulted in runaway success, I find a common thread that links them all: innovation. Whenever an online campaign blew away expectations, it was largely because we did something that had never been done before.

For example, a campaign I planned for Standard & Poor’s (S&P) several years ago helped increase the company’s efficiency in obtaining trial subscriptions for its service. The fourfold lift in acquisition efficiency was due to a new tactic — using Enliven banners to register new users in real time, right from the ad. No one had yet used Enliven to do real-time registration. These days, it’s pretty commonplace.

That campaign appealed to users by informing them of S&P’s value proposition while allowing them to sign up for the service without leaving the site they were on. Although some marketers might argue that the campaign’s success was due to a novelty factor that wears off as more online users get used to rich media ads, I don’t think that the novelty is the only thing about using a new tactic that drives success. The real-time registration was pretty convenient. And the whole idea of not ripping Web surfers away from whatever it was that they were doing at the time they encountered the ad also had something to do with it.

Sometimes, innovation contributes to success in a different way. My current agency was the first to advertise a national brand on Vindigo. At the time, that service was virgin territory for advertisers, so our client was able to enjoy the benefits of advertising in a completely uncluttered interactive environment. If we advertised the client there now, we would not likely duplicate our earlier successes; other national brands have moved into that environment and are competing for attention there.

Obviously, agency media planners want to innovate as much as possible so they can experience breakthrough success, as in the above two examples. But because this industry moves very quickly, we’re not always in a position to continually innovate. Unrealistic deadlines for media plans, the race to keep up on new technologies, and strained personnel resources can all be enemies of innovation. So we have to watch our agency processes and work habits to make sure that we position ourselves to be innovators. Here are some tips:

  • Buy as much time as you can for planning. All agency media planners are familiar with the overnight media plan. We all get requests with completely unrealistic deadlines. However, I’ve found that when these requests come through, it makes sense to do a “bridge plan” to buy you some time. Instead of planning for the whole quarter or the whole year, do a bridge plan that covers one month. That way, while the bridge campaign is running, you have time to come up with new and innovative strategies and tactics.
  • Meet with technology vendors often. Many times, the key to innovation is finding a new technology that can be leveraged in a new way. The only way you can do this is to meet regularly with rich media and ad technology companies.
  • Collaborate with vendors. Your sales reps and technology partners can help you by fleshing out ideas and gathering information. Tell your ad sales reps your objectives and give them some tactical ideas for reaching those objectives. With the gift of a running head start, any sales rep who knows how to do the job will come back to you with mockups, costs, technical requirements, and media flight information. Same goes for technology vendors.

For online advertising to be as successful as it can be, we need to be an industry of innovators. And to be innovative, we need to appropriately position ourselves. Don’t pitch another cheesy GIF banner campaign just because you only have a day and a half to put a plan together. Buy yourself some time, and come up with some new ideas.

Related reading