What’s the Big Online Idea?

Lately, clients commonly talk about how their competitors did “a big rich ad thing online,” or they saw a great “viral idea” and it got some great press. They usually add, “I want one of those.”

That’s all well and good, but what’s missing is what that client hopes to accomplish. More brand exposure? More press? More email addresses? More (God forbid) sales? All the above? (I get that one a lot). Often, the goal is simply to make their mark and “be famous” for something they did online.

Online marketers on both sides of the client/agency fence must remember the online community demands a certain honesty and humility. The Internet isn’t a playground for the advertising ego (offline still is). One must bear in mind the online audience can love you one day and drop you like a reality show reject the next.

The work you create for the online audience must be useful, innovative, and relevant to the context you’re trying to create.

The point of a big online idea is often overlooked for a variety of reasons. It’s too hard to talk about, people don’t know what to ask, there’s not enough time to bring it up, and so on.

Money can make a lot of those hard questions go away; it’s the “pay” of “pay or pray” when it comes to launching a big idea. But it’s also the end for a lot of bigger thinking and the beginning of a long walk toward “pray.”

Nonetheless, we get down to brainstorming with very little strategy and a highly ambiguous goal. We think up something unique and cutting edge so our clients can make a big splash. But we’re playing in a new game and following the old rules. This trap usually comes from senior agency executives who believe in over-delivering anything to keep a client.

Big mistake.

We online marketers are no strangers to finding new ways to make people notice our clients. But in the end, a lot of great, innovative ideas land on the cutting room floor or are flatly rejected by the client.

How did this happen? Last week, the client wanted the next Subservient Chicken.

Innovative online ideas are an expensive risk. If strategy isn’t clear, the creative will be off the mark and can look like a lot of digital fluff. That’s not to say the people who worked on it aren’t talented, it’s the reality of GIGO (define) planning.

People talented at online innovation are good at mining ideas where and when they happen. Most clients are looking for capacity and speed when dealing with online marketing agencies. Innovation is somehow jammed together with rich media advertising. Herein lies a separation between online ad agencies and their clients that few want to realize.

When I first got into music, an accomplished musician gave me some great advice: “Either you’re going to make music or run a recording studio, but you can’t do both.” That holds true for where we’re going with online advertising.

Online is an innovative medium. Aren’t we all supposed to be innovative? Shouldn’t we always add a big idea into our capabilities presentation to clients so they’ll see our strategic vastness?

I don’t mind a bit of theater in a presentation, and adding innovation is a good idea. But every show needs a point of view, otherwise it ends up a dud. You have to start with the basics, or you’re just wasting time and money.

How do we get it right? There’s no easy answer. Start by utilizing people who know how to translate a client goal into a strategy and who know the mores of the online audience enough to recommend a big idea.

Clients, keep your minds open to the idea first. First weigh the risk, then take half the risk value away. Then, see how you feel. You may end up with something unique and innovative that you can use.

And don’t forget to hire a talented agency.

We haven’t yet reached the point of transparency and openness online creatives would love. A place where brand and marketing objectives can embrace the force of consumers, appreciating their ability to be involved in an ad in a deeper way, more than just submitting data points or email addresses.

It can be hard to be a rich media advertiser. It’s harder to be an innovator. And without a clear idea of what you’re trying to do, it’s even harder to be both.

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