Marketing With Context to Reach Generation Y

Two years ago, the vast majority of online ad dollars were spent on one media form – ad banners. They were priced one way – cost per thousand. Moving forward, several factors – gradually improving technologies, widening bandwidth, growing consumer awareness of ads – will drive the evolution of increasingly interactive and diverse ad forms.

Buyers and sellers of online media will continue to face a rapidly evolving, complex marketplace where it is difficult to make strategic and tactical decisions. This is particularly important as marketers consider how to effectively reach the desirable and fast-growing 17 to 25-year-old marketplace, often referred to as Generation Y.

The majority of Internet advertisers still look to the top Internet sites (as rated by traffic) to reach this audience. They flock to search engines in hopes of buying a keyword that a potential customer will search for, yet may not have any understanding of who the customer is that is viewing the banner ad. For example, was the consumer searching for “windows” a 10-year-old, 24-year-old, or 77-year-old? Were they searching for computer software or replacement glass for their home? This problem presents advertisers a challenge that affects both cost and ad campaign performance – how to market with context.

The Internet helps marketers put things in context. Smart online publishers create content and personalization features consumers are willing to register for. And smart 21st Century advertisers take advantage of these features through narrowly focused, customer-driven advertising campaigns. Providing useful content, services and tools to consumers in a personalized environment gives publishers the ability to collect consumer data and aggregate audiences along lines of common interest. For example, advertisers such as Ford can not only target specific audiences, such as 18 to 24-year-old college students, but individuals within those demographics, such as 20 and 21-year-old females graduating from college next spring who are actively seeking automobile information.

Granted, Ford is not going to reach 10 million people with this type of campaign. But they may reach 1 million potential customers who have pre-defined themselves for Ford. This type of contextual marketing program has been shown to produce response rates that average much higher than traditional banner advertising. And by developing creative executions that match the target audience to the content they are viewing on the site they are visiting, it has been shown to increase purchase rates by over 1,200 percent. But today's college students have grown up in the “TV generation” and are increasingly impervious to traditional advertising.

So what is the difference between a campaign that is treated with indifference and one that is enticing? Looking specifically at college students, the ad must speak to the viewer in language they understand – and at the right time. For example, a student cramming for exams will be quite responsive if they've been online all afternoon and into the evening and at 8:30 p.m. are presented with an ad such as “Hey Jeff! Don't go hungry just because the dining hall's closed. Pedro's Pizza beats what they serve up any day anyway. Click here for half off a large cheese and free delivery.”

In the case of a Web site that is specifically designed for the college audience (a vertical portal or hub), ads that do not target the college market, and specifically student attitudes, will not fare well. Ads that are highly targeted, speaking to the individual and their interests and actions will.

Model for success. Thus, the vertical portal or hub that is directed to a specific demographic represents the wave of the future. College students and the college bound youth of America are a growing segment of the population. In fact, after the Baby Boomers, Generation Y represents the second largest demographic group among the U.S. population. Reaching this market is critical for retailers. Knowing how to reach this group using the Web, and marketing to them in targeted, contextual ways is the key to success.

This can be accomplished with students in a very unique way because research has shown that students are very targeted in their Web surfing habits. They go online to research a specific subject in depth and want to find one location to get all the information they need on a specific subject – probably because they have so little personal time. Thus, when students find a vertical portal or hub that meets their needs, they will stay a while – they feel that have “struck it rich.” For advertisers, sponsoring content areas on such a destination site can greatly enhance their brand image and drive interest among college students, many of whom are willing to enter into longer term “relationships” with the marketer. For example, a shoe manufacturer that sponsors a content area about women's fitness, frequently updated with useful tips and tricks, will begin the process of building lifelong brand loyalty from an audience that's self-qualified for the marketer.

Without the vertical hub, advertisers will continue to place bets on low response online banner ads across mass audience sites without fulfilling the Internet's biggest, yet most overlooked, marketing opportunity – delivering a purchase proposition to the individual most likely to buy.

Bill Townsend is vice president of sales and marketing for YouthStream

Media Networks, New York, which developed, an Internet hub for the collegiate community. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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