MarketingData-Driven MarketingThe Future of Online Advertising – Are We There Yet?

The Future of Online Advertising - Are We There Yet?

A look at a piece written a whopping 18 years ago gives a glimpse at what columnist Jim Sterne thought the future of digital advertising might be like in "the future." Did his predictions come true?

With all the prediction articles floating around, I decided to reach back over the waves of time to a little something I wrote about the future…18 years ago.

My vision was clearly wrong in my failure to foresee programmatic advertising and my over enthusiasm for the user interface. While I tried to make a good show of why we still need a human in the mix, I did not internalize the old saying (attributed to Isaac Asimov):

The factory of the future will be run by a man and a dog.

The man will be there to feed the dog.

The dog will be there to keep the man away from the machines.

And I’m still waiting for my Oculus Rift and data gloves to show up…


~ ~ ~

Looking through an eyeglass-weight display, barking out instructions and waving data-glove encased hands, tomorrow’s ad maestro manipulates the reach, the frequency and message delivered to millions of surfers in real time.

Our maestro sits at the virtual command center located anywhere a phone cell can hear her. The display shows levels of response across multiple sites to multiple banners from multiple profile types. With a push of a virtual button, a literal blink of an eye, the promotion balance is adjusted.

The image of the control panel resembles the angled table of an old analog recording studio. Dozens of knobs line up across a field of vertical slots, waiting for a touch to send them higher or lower. But these do not control the amplitude of the signal coming in. They control the types of people the message is going out to.

Each has a label floating over it that grows in brightness the higher the knob is set. The labels include auto, business, college, computer, education, entertainment, health, home, and more. In the background, where musicians would have played and sang, hovers a mathematical grid, a rubber sheet, waiting to be pulled and stretched by generated results. It is black and at rest.

The product being advertised for this session is WebSim business gaming software. It simulates a website and puts the player in the webmaster hot seat. Can you make your navigation easy enough? Can you keep it updated frequently enough to keep return visitors returning on the stingy budget you had to spread over servers, artists, net connectivity and Java programmers?

The maestro reaches for the sliders. As she sets each knob, a chart on the far side of the rubber sheet duplicates her choices with vertical, colored bars indicating the selected profile. She sets Computers to 80, Internet to 100, and Business to 40. Then she reaches for Entertainment and slides the knob up to the 60 mark, watching the blue bar on the far wall follow her movement exactly.

She selects from a quiver of banners; a cross-segment marketing message aimed at everybody – the baseline. She tosses the banner toward the rubber sheet and nods as it rises and comes to rest up above, hanging motionless.

WebSim -You’re the Webmaster Click Here!

Compete for Prizes

The Perfect Learning Environment

Above and to the left, linger three gray zeros – the banners to be displayed yet, the click-throughs received, and the response rate as a percent of exposures. To the right, she dials in a gray 10,000; the number of images to be shown in this first test run. At the lower right the session budget of $82,800 challenges her to deliver.

At the bottom left are the figures that show the degree to which the average clicker follows the banner’s path to the final goal of downloading the software.

She is set. It is time.

She runs through the numbers one more time and decides she really needs to net $5,000 for this session. It would only take a day, but with all the prep time she put into it, the banner artwork she envisioned and paid for, and the fact that the non-complete penalty was going to come out of her pocket meant she was at risk. She deserved the reward, but it wouldn’t come easy.

Why had she said she could double the response they got through direct mail? She had still been glowing after her big win with the bond-fund company. She had read the Wall Street Journal cover to cover for three weeks and just knew Alan Greenspan was going to make a move. She had that one wired. She walked away with a big smile on her face and hefty commission.

This one didn’t have that kind of background to it. It was just another new software package in a sea of new software packages. Their mailing numbers were pretty good and that made them harder to beat. They had sent out 90,000 pieces over three runs at a cost of $69,300. They got a 3 percent response rate and followed up by sending a package costing $5 to each of the 2,700 responders. The data entry, the diskette, the quick-start guide, the postage. It added up. All told, they spent $82,800 at a cost of $31.66 each. Not bad as far as the cost of leads goes.

“I’ll take the same budget and return twice the response. You make your software and documentation available on your Web site and I’ll get people to download it. I’ll create all the promotional materials, and personally place the banners. And my fee will be included.”

They took her up on her offer.

The maestro gives one last look at the budget counter and prays for a break. She is set. It is time.

A handle to her left resembles the brake lever on a San Francisco cable car. She moves it forward without hesitation and watches the impressions counter ratchet down to zero. On the ad banner network she’s using 10,000 impressions is the work of a moment.

The results of her efforts gleam from the meters.

Impressions 10,000

Clicks 200

Downloads 1

Only a half a percent who clicked bothered to get the software!? She had successfully ignored the knot in the pit of her stomach up until now. Then she spots the telling number. Average level of depth: 1. It takes three clicks to download.

She snaps her fingers and the entire display is gone, replaced by the bridge page on the client’s website; the page a click-through takes you to. It looks fine. It’s not the problem.

She flips the goggles up onto her head and looks into her own, physical monitor on her desk. She types in the URL for the bridge page and waits. The wait stretches.

She clicks on a picture of her client and settles herself while she waits again, this time for him to answer the call.

“Well, if it isn’t the bionic woman! Nice hat. When are you going to start the banners rolling?”

“I thought I had. When are you going to free up the load on your server?”

“What are you talking about? Our server’s fine.”

“Wrong. Check it out on an outside line and see what the rest of the world is seeing.”

“OK, OK, give me a second … to … switch … to. Oh, my.”

“Oh, your.”

“Hang on. OK, I killed it. It was a backup!”

“At two in the afternoon? What’s the matter, can’t you tell your AM and your PM?”

“That’s very strange. Why would somebody be messing with the time of day?”

“The same people who are fixing your Millennium Bug?”


“Please, there’s a lady telepresent.”

She flips the goggles back down and waves her colleague adieu. Another snap of the fingers reconstitutes the controls. With a quick glance at the interest levels of clickers, she makes a small adjustment to the sliders and gives the lever another full throttle shove.

This time she listens more carefully to the telltale pitch. The clickrate pitch is a tad higher, that’s good, but in the several minutes it takes to run through another 10,000 impressions, she only hears that sweet little bell ding three times. The numbers tell the story. Three percent clickthrough, of which only one percent downloaded.

She gives herself one more test run before opening the floodgates and some work is needed. The bridge page loads fine. The license agreement page loads fine. The download page loads fine. But you have to scroll two clicks down to the download button. Why hadn’t she caught that before?

She grabs at the helpful, friendly, warm, and charming top paragraph and shoves it to below the precious download buttons. She smiles and runs the third round. The software retrieval rate goes up to one and a half percent. She smiles. The click-through rate is still at 3 percent. She frowns.

A quick calculation. She has used up a half of one percent of her budget and realized a tenth of a percent of her target. This is not good. The knot in her stomach makes itself known. She studies the surfer interest profiles with all of her attention.

The rubber sheet is now distended into a shape like the Matterhorn after too many martinis. There are two of them. She has a large enough sample to spot the problem. Those interested in computers responded nicely. Those interested in the Internet responded very well. Those with a thing for business were abysmally indifferent and the entertainment crowd was stretched up to where the black sheet had gone through all of the other colors and reached a white snowy peak at the top.

It is time to adjust, and to let out the throttle a little. She sets the interest sliders accordingly and re-dials the impressions to 200,000. She rummages through her quiver of banners.

Master The Web -Forget Quake2 -WebSim Puts YOU In The Master’s Seat

Click Here!

She eases the trolley car lever forward. She wants to feel the response levels.

It takes longer to run through these banners. She listens as the response rate resonance turns melodious and the sweet download bell sounds more like a telephone than a tentative patron at an empty bakery.

When it’s over, she starts to relax a bit. A four percent click-through with a two percent download. She realizes she didn’t trust her gut. They told her this game was for older folk. Business people looking for a tutorial. They said the gaming crowd as defined by most banner networks were kids. Teeny boppers who wanted to play shoot ’em up, blast ’em and watch ’em bleed games.

She knew better. Kids are savvy. Now is the time to prove it. She reaches in her quiver and grabs a bright orange, animated, in your face ad and tosses it into position

Quake Is For Flakes – Master The Web

Show ’em What You’re Made Of with WebSim

YOU run the server YOU design the pages YOU win the prizes

Click NOW!

Time for the big guns. She steadies herself, dials the impressions to one-point-five million and eases the level into play. A smile dances cautiously across her face. The timbre rises. The sweet bells of the telephone ringing settle into a steady tone. The sound of the emergency broadcast network on the radio that signals all is well.

The noise finally quiets and the results are good. She’s burned through 42 percent of her cash and only brought in 36 percent of the downloads, but she has a secret weapon on her side: frequency.

She dials up 2 million banners. She hits the full repeat button for full frequency and knows she’s got the numbers she needs, even before she starts. At the 5,400 download mark a small light blinks and the music halts. There’s no need to buy any more banner space. She met the contract. The rest goes into her pocket.

The next morning she doesn’t need to report to her client, they’ll know when they look at their server logs. She need only email the invoice.

There was even enough left over to fix up her own website a little. She could hire some outside help. Maybe she’d wait until the WebSim contest was over and make the winner an offer.

(From Advertising on The Webby Jim Sterne – Que – January, 1997)

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