Parallel Realities

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Appearing in my in-box within minutes of each other, two bits of news and analysis brought home the sad paradox that is online advertising today. The first was a release from comScore Media Metrix that announced the company’s new series of planning tools that enable day part targeting and online reach/frequency analysis. Without commenting on the specific strengths of the company and its products (we’ve done no specific analysis on these particular mousetraps), I can say without reservation that day part planning and reach/frequency are two of the most vital topics we should be discussing as an industry. Companies like comScore, Nielsen//NetRatings, IMS and Atlas DMT deserve our praise and our attention for getting out in front on this.A few minutes later someone sent me a column by MSN’s Jane Weaver (no relation) on the most recent Roper/ASW study which contends that 43% of Americans think online advertising is “a nuisance because it interferes with my Internet usage.” Then, just yesterday, AOL announced that it was releasing pop-up blocking software to AOL 8.0 subscribers, a move that one AOL official claimed would help their customers break out of “pop-up purgatory.”

So this is what it is right now. Even as the online advertising industry continues to make really smart moves, as we develop capabilities that are reshaping marketing as we know it, we’re constantly reminded of our most notable – and highly visible – shortcoming: the advertising environment. It’s a bit like the story of Cyrano de Bergerac: The guy speaks amazing verse, but can’t catch a break because of that gargantuan schnozz.

I’m no huge fan of pop-up advertising, nor am I enamored with the business press and its general treatment of the online advertising medium (I’m wondering if anyone considered the headline “57% of Internet surfers DON’T find online ads annoying?”) but blaming either of these phenomena for the image problems facing our medium is a cop out. Until the leading sites, networks and advertising providers band together and fundamentally rethink the advertising environment we’ve created online, then we’re just powdering Cyrano’s honker.

There are about a thousand great reasons for marketers to embrace this medium and seismically redistribute media spending to carve out a greater share for online. (Earlier this week DoubleClick announced the findings of a WebRF study that pointed to the improved reach of marketing plans (http://www.doubleclick.com/us/knowledge/documents/research/dc_webrf_0303.pdf) that heavied up the online share.) And whether we like it or not, there’s one major reason they won’t. We’re not giving them – in Hemingway’s words – “a clean, well-lighted place.” It comes down to three areas: interface design, advertising policy and – only then – quality of creative execution.

  • INTERFACE DESIGN: There’s been some positive movement when it comes to true integration of advertising into the user experience…the MarketWatch “intro message” and The New York Times introduction of “half page” units (http://www.adage.com/images/random/nytadproto.gif) are both very strong.

But the challenge is still out there: can we reimagine user experience and site design in a way that integrates and elevates the medium in the eyes of marketers? If we get it right, online becomes the advertising standard by which other media are judged. Now wouldn’t that be refreshing?

  • ADVERTISING POLICY: Technically, I don’t think much more of “pop-up blockers” than I do of ad-blocking software; I put them right up there with porn-filters and the national terrorism alert system as purely feel-good solutions. But even if you dismiss the technical response to the problem of rampant pop-up advertising, you can’t ignore the human response: advertisers are skittish and consumers are starting to tune us out. The answer is responsible limits on pop-up deployment (tight per-session, per-day and per-consumer caps) and policies governing that deployment (an “ownership” line at the top of each unit, for example). Will this take care of the “rogue states” of Internet advertising? No, not yet. But if the major, quality sites and networks band together and create their own set of standards on the issue, they’ll send a strong signal to marketers. Until they do, they’re not yet part of the solution.
  • QUALITY CREATIVE: Often I hear complaints that you just can’t find great creative on line. Often it’s the advertisers and agencies who take the heat for this. But there’s a publisher responsibility here as well. As every quality consumer magazine publisher knows, you put the best looking stuff up front, and you bury the direct response and per-inquiry stuff in the back of the book.

Are we taking enough care to determine what ads should and shouldn’t appear on home, pages and section headers? Granted, I’m not looking at making a monthly budget like my sales director friends are, but at some point we’ve got to say, “No…ads of this nature shouldn’t be the first thing consumers – and advertisers – see when they come through the front door.” Figuring this out may be somewhat costly in the short term (you begin to limit available inventory to throw at some of these P.I. campaigns), but doing nothing can cost even more over the long haul.

Until we sort out our serious environmental issues, the great strategic work we do in the medium is going to continue to fall on deaf ears. It’s as plain as the nose on our face.

Send your comments and questions directly to Doug Weaver

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