Why Can't Advertising Understand the Internet?

Gina Deveney
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Advertising is a tricky business. To work in the field is to spin several plates while walking a tightrope between extremes. Adopt an advertising strategy that soft pedals the brand, and you won't get the market saturation you're after. Drive too hard, and you risk alienating an entire segment of your target market. Choosing your ground is as important as learning to tailor your message. Given the importance of reaching the right people with the right message, it's surprising that so few of those involved in advertising—especially those near the top, in decision-making roles—seem to understand the changes wrought by the advent of the Internet age.

On the surface, Internet advertising would seem to be child's play. If market research suggests that stamp collectors are likely to be receptive to your message, simply tailor your advertising strategy to them, post some annoying popups on all the stamp collecting websites, and knock off for a round of golf. It isn't quite that simple though. Banner ads have terrible click-through rates, and if they are the centerpiece of your company's online advertising strategy, it might be time to update your efforts.

One reason the upper echelons of the advertising industry don't really get Internet advertising has to do with the clash between old-fashioned communication models and modern interactive communities. Under the old and increasingly obsolete model, consumers would sit down with a copy of The Saturday Evening Post and flip through the ads on their way to the articles. It was a passive, helpless experience. The TV watcher was in an even worse position, having to sit through commercials with people screaming that they were insane for offering such low, low prices. Changing the channel, just like closing the magazine, would stop the assault at the risk of missing the fill—that is, the stuff the consumer actually wanted to see.

The Internet differs dramatically because your advertising strategy no longer enjoys a captive audience. Internet users can choose to ignore an annoying message. They can block popups, scroll past the bouncy banner ads, and read around the pseudo articles embedded in their content. An advertising strategy that assumes the consumer is still afraid to touch that dial is as doomed as the dinosaurs. One thing customers will do, however, is click through to things that really interest them, sponsored ad or not. While only a fraction of people reading Reader's Digest might be caught by the latest Boniva insert on their way to Humor in Uniform, the average browser of an online arthritis support group might be very interested indeed. What has changed in the model is the idea that advertising has to be annoying. Indeed, an annoying advertising strategy—such as those still being crafted by older veterans—will turn off consumers, thus achieving the opposite of its purpose.

The future of online branding strategies seems clear, at least to the younger wave of professionals who will be charting this new world. Advertising is going to have to move away from the top-down model that was appropriate for print and TV and toward a more respectful effort to genuinely help customers find what they're looking for. The transition is difficult, and it's essentially a moral effort to change a lifetime's worth of perspective. Already, online advertising is moving toward gentle advice, and as it moves, a more brash advertising strategy will find itself falling behind in the competition for clicks.

(Photo courtesy kibsri / freedigitalphotos.net)


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