Reply Hazy, Try Again Later

A coworker once referred to me as “visionary.” Although I was flattered, it also caused me to think that visionaries are just people who make an educated guess about something and are lucky enough to hit close to what eventually becomes reality. However, for every visionary able to “see” the future, there are probably several hapless souls looking in the opposite direction. For those brave souls out there who warned the world that depression would overtake us in the ’90s, that communism would take over the world, and that the Y2K crisis would result in untold destruction, I salute you.

Being a visionary brings with it an understanding of where the world can go and the benefits of going that way. Looking back through history, the “foresight” of some individuals now serves as a warning to those of us who think that we absolutely know what lies around the next bend. My favorite example (which may or may not be true) has to do with Charles H. Duell, head of the United States Patent Office, who went before Congress to propose that his office be dissolved because “everything that can be invented, has been invented.” The year was 1899.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone as a tool to assist the deaf in hearing. When he attempted to market the telephone as a tool for communicating with voice over wires, Western Union noted in 1876, “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. This device is inherently of no value to us.”

Today is no different. Although technology keeps marching on, there are always “visionaries” who are moving in different directions. Technology is fickle. It’s great if you can create a better mousetrap, but the world won’t be bothering to beat a path to your door until you are able to explain how the better mousetrap will personally benefit them. Even then, it is the buying public’s perception of a product, and not necessarily its reality, that drives it forward.

For example, when the VCR was starting to come into its own, Sony and JVC both developed approaches that, while apparently similar, were fundamentally different. Sony knew that the Beta tape format it offered was without a doubt of much better quality than the VHS format that JVC was offering. Yet, Sony didn’t bother to spend a lot of time or money pointing that out to the world. When the VHS versions of the VCR started to be sold for about $800 less than the then-dominant Sony player, the market turned toward VHS and never looked back. Did the average consumer care that the quality of playback was better using Beta? Maybe. But VHS still offered a better quality over what could be seen on broadcast television and was more affordable. What more needed to be said?

In looking at the future of online advertising, the question of its effectiveness will continue to be the driving force behind the market. The question that also needs to be answered is this: Is it possible to provide benefits to consumers while still providing benefits to advertisers?

Advertising is a tough product to market. For starters, most customers have a fairly low regard for most ads. They are just noise against the landscape. The ads that appeal to us are those ads that make an offer that reaches a need we have or are for products that we already endorse and use.

One possible advertising solution is for personalizing ads for the people who see them. I’m not talking about approaches such as, “Congratulations [insert name here], you may already be the BIG winner!” I’m speaking more about individuals seeing online ads only for products that they are interested in or that meet a personal need. However, this is a double-edged sword; it is practically impossible to know what a person wants and desires without knowing a great deal about that person, and that involves the customers’ willingly giving up lots of information about themselves so that they can be marketed to. I don’t see that as a really popular approach.

Alternately sized ads are the big rage today. Metrics have shown that they do a better job of attracting attention than “traditional” banner ads. However, I contend that if the products and services being offered don’t apply to the recipient of the ad, the offer is still ineffective.

One approach that will come to pass in the not-too-distant future is the creation of full-screen online ads that don’t go away unless the customer closes them on purpose or until the ads time out. This approach is not about benefit to the customer but about being able to provide advertisers with 100 percent user interaction and more measurable results.

Will this work in all aspects? Absolutely not! For starters, ads of this format will certainly cause those people who have the free time to write letters to advertisers, or anybody else who will listen, about the annoyance of such ads, to say that they will never, ever user the products being advertised — and may all advertisers burn in hell!

However, if consumers want to get something that is of value to them, they may be willing to sit through a 15-second online pitch in exchange for access to that information. Sites offering these services might consider this approach as a way of either retaining advertisers or facing the possibility of charging a subscriber fee. The former might be a drag for the user, but the latter is a drag for both the user and the sites.

Hey, I’m guessing here! If it turns out I’m right, I’ll be happy to accept the accolades. In the meantime, I’m going to go visualize lunch.

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