The Smooth Sell: Database Connectivity Ads

“It’s not the size of the ad, it’s what you do with it,” seems to be a common reaction to the Internet Advertising Bureau’s recent release concerning its latest attempts at ad standardization. Whenever someone says this, I have to smile. It shows that they get it.

Other folks who get it are starting to realize that it’s getting harder and harder to use online ads to drive traffic to a destination Web site. Rather than trying to achieve goals by driving people away from the site they’re currently on, smart marketers have moved toward an “advertising as distributed presence” model. They create ads that allow Web users to execute as much of a transaction as possible within the ad, knowing that even one or two clicks taken out of the conversion process will reap many incremental rewards during the course of an online campaign.

New technologies make it much easier to pull information from databases and get that information into the ad. Some ad formats offer database connectivity, which allows for real-time updates and can make each ad a personalized experience for each Web user.

Years ago, I experimented extensively with Java ads that captured information from users by utilizing a form within the ad. I quickly realized that this was a lot more effective than a traditional GIF banner that drove traffic to a form hosted on a client’s Web site. At the time, taking steps out of the conversion process proved to be a theme that showed up in many of my campaign plans.

Later experimentation with passing this data to a database in real time showed some interesting results as well. We even designed banners that could query a product database and offer specials to interested Web surfers, handling the entire product transaction within the ad. In many cases, this proved to be a superior strategy to the old “drive traffic and hope for the best” approach.

These days, database connectivity is a hot feature that many rich media formats are banking on to help improve the state of online advertising. Formats like Enliven, Point7Roll, bluestreak, and Flash 5.0 incorporate technologies that can pass information back and forth between the ad and the database. No longer do online ads have to be frozen in time — they can update just as quickly as an advertiser can update a database.

Yesterday, I smiled as someone showed me a Point7Roll ad from Merrill Lynch over on Yahoo Finance. The ad contained real-time information on the Dow Jones Industrial Average and displayed it in a graph. The ad also had rollover tabs that displayed a form for getting stock quotes and for an offer to open an IRA. I’d be really interested to know how efficient the Point7Roll ad was at getting users to utilize these features, as compared to an animated GIF banner that drives traffic to destination pages on the Merrill Lynch site. If I had to wager a guess, I’d think it was more efficient by at least a factor of 10.

Database connectivity features are not only useful for data capture. A well-designed ad could offer Web specials by querying a remote database to find out which products are overstocked. Pulling images and pricing information from that database, the ad can update itself and sell the product without having to pull Web users away from the sites they visit. In this case, an advertiser could have a clearance sale machine that acquires new customers, rather than a static ad that seeks to inform and compel a click.

All of this raises an interesting question: Do I really need a destination Web site?

Perhaps not. Well, at least you don’t need a destination site in order to execute an ad campaign. In effect, an online ad campaign can serve as a distributed sales presence without the need for a destination.

Personally, I think that a test with these types of ads could be fruitful for a catalog marketer who hasn’t yet committed fully to the Web. The expenditure can certainly be more efficient than a traditional spend. Assuming that it costs a couple dollars per prospect to produce a catalog, acquire a mailing list, and pay postal fees and call-center employees, a distributed sales presence on the Web might cost you a lot less. Production fees and the media cost will often average out to less than a few cents per impression.

Database connectivity offers quite a few interesting creative possibilities, but it can also represent a leap forward in efficiency for your online campaign. If you haven’t yet tested it, I’d recommend looking into it as soon as you can.

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