Integrating the Net Means Knowing Its Strengths

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Companies spent nearly $2 billion in online advertising last year, more than they spent on outdoor advertising. Yet we're still in the toe-dabbling phase of advertising on the Internet.

Most companies remain uncomfortable with this new medium and squirm when anteing up for their online banner placements, unsure if their investments are paying off. They're still struggling to reach the nirvana known as an "online advertising strategy."

But an online strategy isn't what you need. You need an integrated ad strategy that treats the online medium as one powerful tool in a suite of tools you should use to connect with your target market. Your online strategy has to be part of an overall plan. You need a single plan that integrates the online and offline worlds.

Creating a smart, integrated media plan is as much art as science, with as many variables as there are companies. There's no cookie-cutter formula, but there are some basics that should guide your decisions.

First, creating an integrated plan means understanding where online fits in the media mix.

For example, don't rely on online advertising to build a brand. Online can support a branding initiative, but it should never lead. Brand image is the emotional connection your customers have with your company and its products, and I have yet to see a banner ad that has made anyone laugh or cry. Unless your sole purpose is to be a low-cost leader, tried-and-true television is still the best branding medium.

It's also by far the most expensive. It has other drawbacks as well. With all its ability to create an emotional connection, television advertising is still akin to standing behind a curtain yelling to a roomful of people you can't see or hear. It's something of a feat of serendipity when your message and your target audience connect.

Making individual connections, so difficult to do in broadcast and yet so vital to your overall marketing efforts, is where online advertising can excel. Online advertising lets you pinpoint a specific audience.

Print advertising excels here too. Print also gives you significantly more real estate to work with than a 468x60-pixel banner ad and subsequently more room to make arresting, immediate impact, which makes print a terrific vehicle for sustaining a branding campaign.

But online gives you much that print can't. It's interactive. With the excellent targeting tools now available, it can be even more precisely aimed, enabling you to deliver custom content tailored to specific individuals. It's more closed-loop, allowing you to deliver customers to exactly where you want them to be with a simple click of a mouse button.

This ability to close the loop faster with your target customer than any other media strategy is what makes online unparalleled for driving traffic and specific promotions. That's what it's best at doing and that's its most effective place in your overall media plan.

Companies are doing some amazing target marketing using online ad strategies that is resulting in increased traffic and sales. But results are best when they're part of a larger, orchestrated effort.

Understanding which tool does which job best is the most important factor in creating the ideal media plan.

Let's say you've created the ideal integrated plan for a particular campaign. Remember that all your hard work will be for nothing unless you've also ensured your ads, across all media you'll be using, sing from the same hymnal.

Integration and consistency of message are paramount, regardless of where a particular ad is destined to run. Your ads have to look and talk like they're from the same family. Consistency is a basic communications commandment, but it's violated all the time. Consistency pays off - big time. You get dramatically more from your individual media investments if all aspects support each other.

At the same time, the online medium is different, with its own requirements and quirks. The most essential guideline for ensuring your online ads are effective is to keep it simple. Too many banner ads try to do too much. This doesn't mean you can't be creative; some banner ads are more eye-catching than most 30-second TV spots. The key is simple visuals, simple message and clean, fast, no-wait execution.

When a glitzy new tool arrives on the scene, it's easy to assume that it's a completely different animal that demands exotic treatment. Online advertising opens exciting new avenues of promotion and changes the way companies have to think about advertising and spend their budgets. But it's key to think of online as part of the greater whole and not the whole itself. Remember that the next time someone asks to see your company's online ad strategy.

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