Who Pays for a Free Sample?

Some of us have been looking at online ads for about 11 years, trying to find a way to make them beautiful and effective. Apart from the corncob and wiener dog mortgage ad units out there, things are looking pretty slick. No doubt, online ads are earning their keep.

When I think about how much work went into creating great ideas through GIF banners back in the day, it isn’t hard to realize how clients thought the Internet was a nice place to play and be innovative but wasn’t taken seriously. Why should it be? It was cheap.

Back then, a major advertiser spent on average 1-2 percent of her total media budget on online advertising, more a tip of the hat than a commitment. And lest we forget, ad production was labor intensive. So the standard offline production rates didn’t apply. That cost sometimes killed a project.

Online advertising might have been the cheapest access to a target audience since outdoor billboard advertising in the 1800s. A lot of advertising inventory was given away free just to get an advertiser to start spending money online.

Today, though most are firmly ensconced in the medium, some advertisers still debate whether to do “that online advertising thing.” Although it’s not the norm, some even cut their Internet budgets before cutting other, less-effective marketing tactics. Yes, it still happens.

What’s changed is no one gives online ads and media impressions away for free. Why should they? They aren’t cheap.

Therein lies the gap between perception and reality. Some advertisers have consistently embraced online and continued to learn and grow. Others dip into online in fits and starts, often spending lots of time trying to rationalize the data they get from a incongruous series of metrics they’ve compiled, all the while adding rich media advertising to “spice up the mix.” Learning doesn’t come easily if you’re not committed to the pursuit of that knowledge.

As the saying goes, you can’t be half-pregnant.

This isn’t sour grapes. Quite the contrary, in fact. Advertisers must work with their agencies not only to understand if online is valuable but also to commit for the long term.

And if they don’t keep the online advertising engine running? If online marketing initiatives are put on the shelf for the next guy to deal with? We may see the day when some advertisers are left in the dust of their competitors who’ve taken the long view.

What could be stopping those marketers? Bad results? Bad data? Bad agency? (God forbid!) Bad internal support? It could be any or all of these.

If any of this sounds like your company, get professional help. Get yourself an agency that can help you test, learn, optimize, and enhance your online marketing, then take it into the high-end, high-production world and start giving the other marketing channels a good scare.

Though Internet ad spending grows 20 to 30 percent each year, it’s hard to see the door close on the great opportunity online can bring. But believing it won’t close is half the problem, and the free ride of Internet advertising bringing cheap, cheerful ads will only end when it becomes TV… or something better.

Join us for our Online Video Advertising Forum in New York City, June 16, 2006.

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