Why Dot-Com TV Ads Can Fail

No one can escape the carpet-bombing of dot-com broadcast advertising. Unlike many people, I pay attention to them, knowing that many companies stake their success (and a big portion of their capital) on the success of these ads to break through the din and the clutter.

Dot-coms are investing heavily in print, TV and radio because they think it is the best way to reach a national audience. They point to high-profile success stories (like Hot Jobs’ Super Bowl ad) and the fact that offline media enables them to tell a more compelling story.

They usually have three objectives. First and foremost is to acquire customers. Even though customer acquisition costs offline can be astronomical, fledgling dot-coms hope that a good campaign can be an effective way to get customers to their site.

The second objective is more nebulous branding. Start-ups try to establish their identity in the hearts and minds of a large number of people. They feel that if they are first to brand in a category, they can “own” it. “Owning” a category is the (mythical) mother lode of the Internet economy.

The third objective is to get “on the radar screen” of investors and potential investors. The pre-IPO period for start-ups is seen as a do-or-die period where positive recognition is the key to success. If an advertising campaign can elicit an “oh, I’ve heard of them” from big and small investors alike, it can pay off on judgment day (IPO).

The problem is, as countless dot-com companies clamor for attention, it gets harder and harder to accomplish these objectives. But it’s not just the sheer over-population of dot-coms in the advertising landscape that makes success so elusive. There are a number of issues that can limit the effectiveness of offline advertising efforts. Here are some of them:

  • Rush to market. Some start-ups work on ridiculously short time-lines to get their sites up and launch their brands. Often they are under the gun of investors or an IPO schedule. In the rush to do everything, good positioning, let alone good advertising, is thrown out the window. Haste makes waste.

  • Investor meddling. Venture capitalists make poor creative directors. But because they hold the purse strings, they often feel that they should meddle in the ad-creation process. The fact that the VC doesnt like the color blue shouldnt change a creative strategy.
  • Branding recklessness. Quick what business is Outpost.com in? If you saw the ads, you might think it sells gerbils. Trying to create memorable ads can sometimes get in the way of what should be the primary goal in branding a web business: communicating a value proposition to potential customers.
  • Pandering to prospective investors. One start-up I worked with demanded that its web site be optimized for re-printing in The Wall Street Journal. Whether it’s a site or a television spot, communicating to customers and investors at the same time can muddle the message.
  • Working with a traditional agency that doesn’t know the web. Just because an agency can sell soap doesn’t mean it can position a dot-com. Branding on the Internet means providing a unique value proposition to customers. That’s not the same as swathing a product in emotional imagery. If an agency doesn’t know the web, it can’t understand what should be communicated about a web company. Leading with an interactive agency that knows the Internet is often the best place to start.

Integrated with a good online marketing plan, broadcast advertising can help a dot-com succeed in building a customer base, a brand, and recognition from the market. But in the face of enormous pressures, dot-coms need to make sure they do their advertising right.

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