Online DM Agency Sponsors No-Holds-Barred Banner Forum

i-traffic CEO Scott Heiferman says his firm intended only to create debate about how to improve online advertising with — the message board the online direct marketing agency put up as a forum for the debate. At the very least, the site is sparking lively commentary.

The site, which went live last month, hits the Web at a pivotal time for banner advertising. As the portion of Netizens who click through banners has plunged to less than 1 percent levels, companies in the online ad business increasingly tout their ability to create brand awareness, or trot out studies that recast click-through rates as irrelevant.

Naturally, businesses that make money selling, placing or designing banners are a little prickly about New York-based i-traffic publicly asking if their products “suck.” Though he has no immediate plans to close the site, Heiferman is feeling the heat from banners' many proponents.

“Some people think I suck,” he said.

And the i-traffic message board bears out that, indeed, some people do. Most people on the board agree that banners are ineffective or annoying or both. But defenders of bannerdom have leapt quickly and vociferously to the side of their beleaguered advertising medium, and they're asking hard questions.

“Doesn't [i-traffic] produce banner ads?” asks one visitor. “Don't banner buys consist of the majority of your company's online media buys? If banners don't work why do you produce them and buy space for them? What do you say to your clients when they ask you why the banners that your company created for them aren't working?”

Another post suggests, “If you want to eliminate the banner, make the site subscription based, and watch it shrivel into oblivion.”

But Heiferman said i-traffic is not mindlessly bashing online advertising. On the contrary, he sees electronic ads as important components of a broader, more effective ad strategy that combines offline branding with online direct response.

In general, people come across the name of a Web site while they're reading the paper over breakfast, listening to drive-time radio shows, or watching the TV at night. If the pitch is interesting enough, people make a mental note to check out the advertised URL later.

The problem, Heiferman said, is that people often forget to do that. That's where online advertising comes in, he said. Text links, buttons and other ads serve well as notes that remind consumers about those interesting URLs they forgot.

“What direct marketing is all about is really being that stimulus or trigger, or giving people a mechanism to act on it. There's a powerful, powerful interplay between offline branding and online direct marketing,” Heiferman said.

The online ad networks and other banner-related firms don't deny that click-throughs have slipped overall. But the more established banner players assert that they have not given up the fight to boost the number of consumers who click on ads – and that they're succeeding.

[email protected] Vice President of Market Development Susan Bratton said last month that many marketers are using better targeting to get more Netizens to click ads. Other technology advances, such as rich media, yield better click-through rates as well. But clicks decline across the Web because rookie marketers blow the average.

“New people are bringing the numbers down,” Bratton said.

The voices touting branding on the Web are getting louder and speaking from a number of quarters. DoubleClick CEO Kevin O'Connor argued in a keynote speech at the Jupiter Online Advertising Forum in San Francisco last month that direct marketers too frequently overlook the Web's ability to put brand names in front of millions of people.

But the banner-as-branding-tool pitch doesn't hold water with i-traffic. Heiferman said the agency has learned through experience with clients that, in fact, offline advertising is more cost-effective at fixing a Web site's brand name in consumers' minds.

“You have people in the online ad business who say, 'Don't say that. It's blasphemy.' But that's reality,” Heiferman said.

Still, some threads defending banners on the i-traffic message board appear to have been written by people from outside the industry who stumbled across the site. A few posts point out that ad-supported Web pages and e-mail accounts have one attribute that make them very valuable from the consumer's perspective: They're free.

“For those dreaming of the day when technology can turn off all the advertising on a site, say hello to 'pledge drive,'” one poster said.

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