Avoid Online Sizzle for Sizzle’s Sake

When interactive advertising came on the scene, it was so sexy that it leapfrogged more traditional direct marketing into the creative spotlight. Interactive got the same level of attention and buzz as many brand advertising campaigns.

But when you peel away the excitement, interactive is direct marketing at its core. So what did it really leapfrog?

The answer is “nothing.” Interactive creative faces many of the challenges and issues that confront traditional DM. Starting with the dot-com bust and now our lagging economy, interactive agencies finally are buckling down to create advertising that consumers can truly interact with. It’s no longer sizzle for sizzle’s sake. Good Internet creative needs to be good direct marketing to be effective.

Here are some classic direct marketing rules and how they can be used to deliver better online creative:

Give them the right message at the right time. Like most marketing, the Internet is about interrupting consumers while they are doing other things.

But it is rare to find an empty space online that hasn’t been filled with a marketing message. Consumers are inundated with pop-ups and pop-unders. There’s deceptive copy/creative that disguises itself as an alert on your computer but really takes you to a sales message. Flashing, streaming, audio, pop-ups that keep reappearing when you click them away (like the birthday candles you can’t blow out) are everywhere.

I am sure I am like most consumers. I click them all away without even looking at them.

With the DM adage of “the right message to the right person at the right time,” you won’t drive consumers crazy. The most effective marketing communications tout not how flashy or cool the product is, but rather what benefits it can deliver to the consumer.

Be smart, targeted and provocative. This is particularly true for unbranded financial services marketing. Except for the major banks, the category is being diminished by the incredible amount of spam from unbranded mortgage brokers, credit card and credit rating companies. This makes it that much harder for legitimate marketers to have credibility.

Branding and permission marketing have grown much more critical. Creative must communicate relevance and a prior relationship with the person without using overplayed tactics such as repeatedly stating the recipient’s name, especially when they often get the name wrong.

And because online communications are cheap to deliver, multiple divisions within companies compete for the customer and send numerous e-mails, each with different messages. For most companies, it is about creative quantity, not relevance. Rarely is there a central unit that manages the customer experience.

Focus on the basics. Just like the teasers on direct mail, subject lines need to be provocative, lead the consumer to open landing pages and use proactive methods to close the sale. Customers are dropped into a maze of information and too often drop off in the process.

Copy needs to be easy to scan. As in the offline world, there are too many words. We live in a sound byte world, and no one has time to read lengthy copy.

Plus, there are common sense rules to follow:

· Usability. Many sites do not test the user experience. They assume that because they offer the information, the user will go through non-logical procedures to access it.

· Content. Developers show what they want to show rather than what the end user needs.

· Monitor resolutions. Sites need to be “expandable” to work at various monitor displays.

· Use of Flash. Flash is becoming standard, but Flash has inherent issues including not allowing indexing by search engines, not always printing properly and sometimes creating navigation problems if the site is not set up in a page-by-page format.

Get smarter with business-to-business messaging. The major challenge with BTB marketing, especially technology, is that the sale usually requires dissemination of complex information. It is difficult to know where people are in the buying cycle and how much or what type of information they need to move along the consideration/purchase continuum.

The creative challenge is balancing how much information to deliver in the e-mail vs. landing page vs. microsite and where to lead the person from there (direct online purchase, reseller, live sales person, lead management process, demo, etc.).

Targeting of vertical industries produces excellent results particularly in BTB. One reason lies in the relevancy of industry-to-industry messaging that can be grasped quicker while being a softer, more customer-focused sell. You’re not just selling the product, you’re helping solve a particular problem in the prospective customer’s industry.

Online creative must be designed as a continuum of messages that engages the customer and creatively collects information, rather than passively pushes generic information at a person. Rigorous creative testing is needed to identify the right information mix for each customer segment.

Online creative faces more and more challenges as Internet culture and technology expand and mature. But it continues to have a tremendous value. There is still no other comparable way for marketing communications that is more nimble, quickly adjustable, tractable and relatively inexpensive.

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