The Right Medium For The Right Message

Over the last few weeks, this column has questioned the assertion that web advertising flat out doesn’t work. But I don’t want to give final treatment to Michael Fischler’s article (see “Web Advertising Doesn’t Work”) by leaving the impression that the premise is entirely without merit.

Quite the contrary. In fact, I was grateful that the much-discussed issue of what constitutes good advertising online was brought out of the closet for a vigorous debate. Judging by the email the columns generated at ClickZ, I’d guess many readers welcomed the interchange as well.

Some of this brouhaha is just semantics. Both of us agree that the web has value as a branding vehicle, in relationship building, for comparison shopping and information gathering, and for developing trust. We also agree that advertising effectiveness is hard to track.

But we disagree about what constitutes advertising, about the value of direct response as a sole measure of advertising effectiveness, and about whether advertising can be anything other than intrusive, annoying and information-limited.

(Ironically, really effective advertising is often overlooked. Why? Because it accomplishes its goal of informing and inspiring, without offending. When an advertisement provides the information or motivation a consumer needs to make a decision, we rarely stop to credit that ad. Instead, we consider ourselves clever for having done the research to make the purchase. An ad may well have played a part, but our egos manage to forget that part of the process.)

At the center of this whole debate is the unspoken assumption that there is any single “right” role for advertising to play. None of us would set out to sell a soft drink the way we’d sell an automobile or financial service. Yet some observers talk about advertising as if it is all the same.

In my experience, different types of advertising work for different kinds of products, sold through different sales channels, at different price points, and in different markets. The optimum role for advertising in each case varies as much as any other part of the marketing mix.

There are impulse purchases where name recognition is one of the most important variables, and other impulse buys where price rules. There are considered purchases where detailed product knowledge is the crucial factor, and others where brand carries the day. Clearly these different marketing and sales objectives merit different advertising goals.

For some of these goals and to some target audiences, TV is and will continue to be the best vehicle. For others, it will be print or radio or direct mail. And already, there are goals that are directly compatible with the unique attributes and audiences that the internet brings to the table as an advertising medium.

Do you need a way to communicate heavy doses of information to enable a large ticket item purchase? For that, no medium yet beats the web. How about catching the attention of information seekers perusing content relevant to your products? Well-targeted web banners are ideal.

Want to address channel shortages by helping consumers find local or online suppliers for your goods? Or cut back on support costs by handling customer support online? All of these are valid advertising objectives well served by the web.

The internet as advertising vehicle is still new, and we are all still working to figure out how best to utilize this communications resource. Over time, smart and creative advertisers, agencies and web sites will devise new creative units, pricing structures, measurement techniques and advertising objectives to take advantage of the best of the medium.

As we vault into a new year, there is little doubt that 1999 will bring exciting, expected and unpredictable developments in the evolving field of internet advertising. Here’s to staying open to the possibilities of what this medium can be.

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