Advertising Age last week devoted its entire issue to digital media, an unusual move for the weekly. Editor Jonah Bloom, in a note to readers, underscored the significance by reminding us that they usually do only two single-subject editions, like the Year in Review during the slow-news period between Christmas and New Year's.
An article by Matthew Creamer is worthy of note, I think, in this noteworthy issue. Titled "Think different: The web's not a place to stick your ads," it challenges traditional thinking about online ads.
Has web advertising moved beyond simply banners and click-throughs? Of course it has. But how effective is it, really, as an ad medium? That's the million-dollar question.
A key difference between the web and other media is that the user controls it. Other media program their space and we, as users, have the simple choice to change the channel, turn the page or shut the TV off altogether. But users determine what they see online, even within the same site or channel.
Jakob Nielsen, an expert in user behavior who advises major companies on their corporate websites, long ago said, "The basic point about the web is that it is not an advertising medium. It is not a selling medium, but a buying medium. It is user-controlled so the user controls the user experience."
Before DVRs, you pretty much had to watch the ads during a show. Remote controls made it easy to avoid ads way before DVRs, although it's common knowledge that channel surfing has led to man a spat between husbands and wives.
But the web is a whole different story, where it's easy to totally ignore ads. Even those that try to engage you by some sort of an on-screen game, like a web version of the shooting gallery game where you try to hit the marching ducks, might catch you for a few minutes. But will it get you to actually read the ad or click through for the real sales pitch? Very unlikely.
The article talks about paid media vs. earned media, getting into public relations jargon. What they're saying is a message that is part of the editorial content has a better chance of being read and responded to. That's one of the selling points we p.r. folks use on why public relations/publicity messages can have more clout than much more costly ad messages.
The article talks about Johnson & Johnson, whose BabyCenter website is cited as a good way to use the web to get a sales message across. The site is chock full of parenting information, like a magazine, with the J&J branding clear yet subtle and not interfering at all with the user experience.
Banner ads on someone else's site probably don't have the same impact as the overall impression and selling opportunities created by that site.
Nielsen says, "Most of the time, when I go to the web, I go to get something done, and I don't want to be distracted."
In other words, a traditional ad probably won't get noticed. So why pay for it? The challenge is to create something -- content -- that people want, where your message or product information can be subtly and logically included.
That's quite a challenge. But I'm confident we're up to it.