Tug of War: Direct Response or Branding?

I’ve written many times of the online medium as a great direct-response vehicle. I’ve also talked about how the medium can be used as a way to engage potential consumers in an exercise that ultimately leads to “branding.”

So, which is it? Do I vacillate whichever way the wind blows? Well, yes, sometimes. The fact of the matter is, the medium can work both for direct response and for branding.

There was a time when I thought that media’s role should be solely as an ancillary sales channel, but I really don’t think it’s exclusively that. Though it is true that at the end of the day, if the project is to sell widgets, how that gets done is not a matter of impulse response to ad-message stimuli.

Some media folks think the future holds media optimizations based on “intent to buy” and “brand perception” and the like. These are valuable factors in determining ad effectiveness. However, the ultimate goal of advertising, regardless of the medium, is to move units. But for the time being, all ads will not be optimized against sales, and demos and awareness are still going to serve as necessary surrogate correlative intermediaries to achieving those sales.

Things like rich media and the new ad formats will, and do, help the project of branding and awareness, but neither is in wide use. And it isn’t strict payout factors that are obstacles to wide use and acceptance of rich media or other formats. It is, instead, client psychology. Certainly, some jerkwater.com having only a $50K ad budget isn’t going to spend $10K on an Enliven unit. But a company like a Unilever will have a multimillion-dollar test budget, and $10K for a rich media ad will be nothing to it.

As long as the perception is that rich media is at least as valuable as a print ad (for which the cost of production is comparable), awareness and brand-promoting units will start taking their place alongside their direct-response brother, the banner. Did anyone see the Ford ad on Yahoo?

Contextual placements will continue to show up and grow more ubiquitous as the prospects for awareness and branding are realized, but a part of me thinks that we need to guard against media history repeating itself, and a “Quiz Show”-like debacle must be avoided, which, for television, changed the way sponsorships were executed for years to come.

Sure, we’ll still have a “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom”-type thing, but there isn’t enough space in the universe for contextual placements that, at the same time, allow media companies to exist financially, unless they continue to converge, owning every possible opportunity to message, thus preserving revenue in those other venues.

At the end of the day, people still like good advertising and don’t like bad advertising. Whether or not it elicits an engaged response is immaterial; unless, of course, the objective is a direct-response objective that has a particular impulse call to action. But should Pizza Hut run ads on ESPN.com expecting pizzas to be purchased at the click of a mouse?

Yes, the question has to be asked, “Does the ‘good advertising’ actually affect my bottom line?” (The Taco Bell Chihuahua didn’t…) But if I have good advertising that can also affect my bottom line, it will be out there, mini-movies, rich media, banners, and all.

But let’s be realistic. Some products and services are not impulse purchases. I am not going to open a $100,000 Schwab account upon the click of a banner or seeing an ad. Nor buy a car, or soda, for that matter.

There are some products and services that I have to be coaxed or reminded into engaging. There is still a primal need somewhere within us that is appealed to by some advertising that is not necessarily attributable to a specific action (sale), but does result in a product relationship that will lead to a lifetime of sales to come.

That’s what “brand” is all about. It is creating a noumenal experience; sometimes it is an unspoken rhetorical exercise of convincing an individual that by engaging the particular product or service represented by the value proposition, said individual’s relationship with the world around him or her will be changed for the better.

Advertising that does this is not something that can be subjected to a means of valuation based solely on the immediate cost per sale.

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