Study: Dot-Com Print Ads Don't Click With Readers

The most basic elements of advertising — clear headlines, relevant copy, visual power and an offer — are sorely lacking in dot-com print advertising, according to a report from marketing research firm Roper Starch Worldwide.

The report, titled “What's Wrong With Dot-Com Ads?” was released last week in the fall 2000 edition of Tested Copy.

“What they're doing is complicating things. They need to keep it simple,” said Phil Sawyer, senior vice president at Roper Starch Worldwide, Harrison, NJ.

Illegible copy, too many pictures, unclear messages, poor layout and the lack of an incentive were a few of the faults Roper Starch found in dot-com advertising, Sawyer said.

The company tested more than 1,000 dot-com ads with 5,000 magazine readers. It used three categories of readership to measure ad impact: Noted, which indicated how memorable the ad was; Associated, which indicated branding effectiveness; and Read Most, which showed how many interviewees read at least half of the copy.

The average index score in these categories is 100. Many dot-com ads had trouble keeping up, especially in the read most category, which Sawyer identified as the most important.

About 575 of the dot-com ads used an excessive amount of copy, which Sawyer identified as 50 or more words. Three hundred of the copy-heavy ads scored below the median in the read most category.

Copy-heavy ads turn readers off, Sawyer said. The read most category “is the most important sign of reader involvement. Companies make sales predictions on this,” he said.

Online gift registry Della and James had the lowest overall score. The ad used British humor and tiny copy to target an American audience. It earned a score of 69 in the noted category, an associated value of 45 and a read most value of 38. This ad was typical of dot-coms' use of ambiguous illustrations that require more time and effort than readers are willing to invest, the report said.

Another low-scoring ad, from e-procurement firm, sported a 29-word headline. Starch said the ideal headline is nine words. The construction “pads of paper” is used twice in the first sentence. The offer, “You'll save gazillions,” is unrealistic, and the ad has no image to draw eyeballs, the report said.

It scored 21 percent below average in the noted and associated categories and 29 percent below in the read most category.

As a comparison, Roper Starch noted the selling points of a successful Victoria's Secret ad. The lingerie company used sex — the image of a beautiful, bikini-clad woman set over a white background — and a seven-word headline to draw eyeballs to the copy. The combination of simplicity and sex earned this ad one of the best scores of the surveyed ads. It scored at least 89 percent above average in all categories, and 108 percent above average in the read most category.

But not every business can include nearly naked supermodels in relevant product offers.

An ad for earned above-average scores in all categories, because it told consumers what was in it for them with its headline: “Find the perfect book for your child every time.” The ad presented an offer in clear language.

“Clarity and benefits will change everything for them,” Sawyer said.

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