The Blurring of Church and State

A couple of weeks ago in this space we told you the sky wasn’t falling because Michael Fischler says so in “Web Advertising Doesn’t Work.”

His premise, based on data that shows declining click-rates and indicates that surfers never look at banners, prompts a look at another flaw in that conclusion — that the banner defines web advertising.

To be fair to the intention of the original message, the actual content of the article talked about aspects of the web that do work well for marketers. Still, what demands a rebuttal is the overarching claim that web advertising isn’t working because banners don’t get high enough response rates.

Banners are but one small part of the web’s advertising and marketing offerings. Sponsored content, which many marketers find to be extremely effective at both building brand and generating response, is an important form of advertising as are buttons, affiliate relationships and any number of other custom programs.

Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Tenth Edition) defines “advertising” as “the action of calling something to the attention of the public esp. by paid announcements.” It defines “advertise” as “to call public attention to, esp. by emphasizing desirable qualities so as to arouse a desire to buy or patronize.”

As a career veteran of the advertising/media business, those definitions map pretty closely to the understanding I’ve always had of advertising: Any paid message designed to curry favor or influence opinion or action qualifies as advertising. By those definitions, a significant portion of all content on the web qualifies as advertising. In fact, the traditional church and state divisions between advertising and editorial/programming are all but gone in the web universe.

On the web, the potential for advertising is everywhere.

Now, let me be clear: I am not endorsing the complete collapse of editorial standards, nor supporting the recent trend allowing advertisers to dictate edit policy. I think visitors are too smart for that, and they won’t come back if they don’t get reliable, independent information on their news and information sites, and quality entertainment on the sites where that is their goal. No one wants to find a commercial message poorly masked as independent content.

Each site has to weigh the needs of visitors and advertisers. Finding the right balance between these often competing demands is a critical and ongoing requirement of any successful media business.

But, within the confines of each site’s editorial policy, there is a lot of room for advertisers and publishers to work together to design paid content relationships (read: advertising) that serve the marketer’s custom requirements. Smart advertisers want to please, serve and attract visitors as much as the site publishers do, because they know advertising doesn’t have to be annoying and intrusive to be effective. In fact, advertising is never intrusive if it addresses the question that the reader/viewer/visitor has been asking.

Nor is it true that advertising has to be “information-light.” Information-rich advertising has been proven to move the meter for complex purchases time and again. The web provides an ideal medium for getting a more complete message out, in a myriad of creative ways.

Lots of advertisers are already doing this with great success. If we limit our view of successful web advertising to banners with high click rates, we miss the opportunity to develop this new medium into the powerful advertising vehicle it can be.

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