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Web ad focus must change

Brand building must be the new focus of online advertising campaigns. 01/07/23 Newsletter hed: Web ad focus must change dek: Brand building must be the new focus of online advertising campaigns. by James Mathewson

A few years ago, I espoused the view that the Web would change the media game for the better by enabling a host of new competitors to keep the big boys honest. For a while, that was true. Sites like Salon and Slashdot broke up the media hegemony, the big sites responded with noticeable upgrades, and we the consumers of tech information suddenly had better, cheaper information. But this is all crumbling now as the Web as a content medium is in crisis. The big sites have consolidated; search engines now only list you if you have big cash; and Web advertising does not allow small sites to gain the cash to get listed. It becomes a catch-22 that threatens to kill off some of the best and brightest. And it all started in a bizarre confidence crash around the first of this year.

Confidence. Something that seeped out of the pores of every online advertiser last year seems to have vanished completely this year. The fact that online advertising dried up almost overnight is the most surprising turn of events I have experienced since I took this job. Some say you only get surprised when you don’t fully understand a situation. I guess my lack of understanding can be reduced to my naivete regarding the psychological aspects of business. Confidence is rarely based solely on rational business principles and cold hard facts. There is also a lot of herd mentality (“they’re not buying, why should we”), plenty of defensive posturing (“I don’t want to get burned there again”), and other soft aspects to businesses. The Web advertising in the last year is a good case study to expose my naïveté. The cold hard facts show that Web audiences are consistently growing. While advertising transactions have declined, eyeballs are up. And the number of shapes and sizes of online ads has doubled in the last year, as have the clever ways of making them interactive. Though Web ads have a long way to go before they capture everyone’s attention, they have grown steadily in the past year. It’s not for lack of trying that online advertising tanked. The cause is harder to figure. It’s that nebulous confidence factor.

In an attempt to raise marketers’ confidence in the medium, a few major stakeholders in the online advertising business–the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), DoubleClick, CNet, and MSN–recently conducted extensive studies indicating that the Web is an effective brand-building medium. What does this mean? Well what just about any rational analysis should conclude (as I have elsewhere): All these eyeballs can’t ignore the ads themselves. They may fail to engage in transactions with the ads, but the people who surf the Web make brand choices based on the ads they see on Web sites. The point that the IAB is trying to drive home is that these brand choices should be valued on a par with those generated by other media. Currently they are not because advertisers think of the Web in terms of transactions and look to bus wraps and billboards for brand building.

Just as pure-play e-commerce sites faced mass extinction this past year, a lot of content sites will perish in the coming year if advertising confidence does not return to the beleaguered medium. The first step is to get marketing people to shift their focus away from transaction-based campaigns and into brand-based campaigns. This is tough in this economy. The first thing to go as marketers cut their budgets is advertising; so print, TV, and radio are suffering as well. And even in other media, the focus is more on direct response than brand building. It is an uphill battle, and one that I hope the IAB soon wins. If not, those of us who depend on the Web for information will have far fewer choices and there will be far fewer competitive checks and balances keeping the major media outlets honest.

James Mathewson is editorial director of ComputerUser magazine and

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