Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Online Advertising: A Cautionary Tale

A report from my colleague Kevin Kosh...

Advertising is accused of many things, but rarely of being subtle - subliminal maybe - but never subtle. Yet in distilling a recent MITX session on the current state of online advertising/marketing, the subtle message was: Be opportunistic, but be careful.

The net/net of the main presentation:
  • Online ad spending/marketing is experiencing significant growth and innovation. Broadband trends are providing a wealth of rich media options.
  • The buying public still distrusts (and somewhat ignores) advertising of almost any stripe, especially Internet and cell phone ads - to the tune of 80% plus.
  • 12% even distrust "word of mouth."
So what does this all mean? Four out of five panelists agreed that online advertising/marketing is approaching or is at its "tipping point," and is poised to become the dominant form of advertising. However, it was the fifth panelist who got my mind churning. With online advertising/marketing grabbing as much as 10-12% of a CMO's budget, he said that a true tipping point would occur if online advertising reached 30-40% of the budget.

He contended that with the health of the market improving, we shouldn't just charge willy-nilly into the next big thing. We need to quickly adapt to leverage new opportunities, while keeping focus on the goal of most effectively reaching the communications target, regardless of the vehicle.

At the end of the day, it's about whom customers trust in their decision-making process. As comedian Steven Wright aptly stated, "Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time." For business communications, everything is in essence "word of mouth" (whether it comes from a well-read colleague or a newspaper). The catch is that, business waits for no one. We need to determine the most expedient way to get our messages to the right mouths.

One panelist applied the theme "change or die." While that makes for dramatic motivational speeches, truth is, it ain't that simple. Change in the communications profession is always gradual, rarely a complete departure from what came before, and always destined to fall victim to its own success. Granted, with the advent of the Internet, we've changed our methods, but the madness remains.

Case in point: Some of the new, "renegade" media outlets, as they try to find the most effective focus and identity, have begun to show signs of saturation. The reality is that the mainstream "noise" that has clogged the machinery of traditional media is once again in play. Consider that a few bloggers, once heralded as offering the unfiltered truth to the public, have been exposed recently as "columnists for hire" for a variety of special interest groups.

Another point of interest: One of the most prominent and well architected business blogs, AlwaysOn, is in the process of launching a print publication. They (and I agree) continue to believe that "PR professionals and corporate marketing executives must now acknowledge this growing alternative media force [blogging], and have a strategy to deal with it," but they also say that, "…a quarterly print magazine that offers a reflective look on the most important trends in innovation and the most popular outtakes from our site is a good complement to our daily online posts."

So what's my point? The best communications programs are not built on the latest trend; they are built on a mix of media based on a strong knowledge of:
  • The client organization - Its weaknesses/strengths, competitors and the larger business trends of which it is a part.
  • The target prospect - What is the pain point and where does one look for help?
  • The tools at your disposal - Weigh the relative strengths/weaknesses of everything from print pubs, to RSS feeds, to public executive letters to blogs. And know how, when and why to use them - or not use them - to reach the prospect. Also, be creative. A blog may not be the best way to reach your prospect, but it may be a way to get an interesting perspective in front of others (such as press/analysts) that the ol' email pitch just won't do.
There is no one-size-fits-all. Our communications mantra should be: The right message at the right time via the right vehicle.

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