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Why the Internet Is Bad for Advertising

The Internet is a lousy advertising medium. Period.

It is a great finding medium. If you know what you want, you can find it on the Net at a good price. It also can be a very nice relationship medium if the vendor uses it — and doesn't overuse it — to retain and add value for its customers in a highly personalized way.

But it is lousy for advertising. The Internet is an active, not a passive, medium. Radio is passive; so is print. When you read a magazine, it is largely sequential — one page, then the next. Each page has an opportunity, albeit sometimes brief, to get your attention. Radio is just there, in the background, song, song, ad, ad. You do not usually do much about it.

Television used to be just as passive; remote controls made it less so. However, it's still passive in that viewers are in front of the box to watch, not to act. They aren't there to accomplish anything. In fact, the whole purpose of TV usually is not to do something.

On the Internet, people are doing things. They are acting, searching, playing, chatting and downloading. Traditional media use inertia to their favor; with the Internet, there is no inertia. I actually have to get you to stop what you are doing and redirect you in a whole other direction — which is not easy to do. Even if I succeed, you still may be distracted by what you need to do back at the other site.

Distracted by Content

With TV and radio, you're not distracted from my commercial messages by the programming. The commercials are interruptions. They have to be; otherwise, you would not notice them. My spot is not on while you are watching “Friends.” The show stops while my ad is running. Ads and programming seldom occupy the same space. On the Web, they almost always do.

When someone is at a Web site, they are there for a reason. It is a Herculean task to get someone to glance up at your banner while they are distracted doing what they want to do at that site. Here is an analogy. Let's say I ran a ticker line at the bottom of the screen of your favorite TV show and the ticker line carried my ad. You might look at it the first few times. But if the ticker line was always there, you would not even notice it after a while, much less read it. The same is true of ad banners. Admit it — you don't even notice them anymore.

For Web advertising to even think about being effective, it would have to interrupt a site and go to an entire page with an ad, which would be extremely annoying to users. But it ultimately may be necessary in order for advertiser-supported sites to attract marketers who have noticed the ineffectiveness of ad banners. We are seeing those pop-up windows that require you to deal with them by clicking them away.

Situs Interruptus

You could say that an ad banner is more like, say, a quarter-page magazine ad in that it shares space with content. OK, I'll give you that. But you're asking that banner to do something that you don't ask the magazine ad to do. You are asking it to get me to stop what I am doing and detour to the advertised site. When I click on the banner, I go somewhere else — a disastrous feature of Web advertising. First, why should I stop what I am doing to go to your site? Second, why would the site that is carrying the ad want me to go away? It prevents me from seeing the rest of its content. More importantly, it prevents me from seeing the rest of its advertising. It is as if a TV network ran a commercial that implored me to stop watching that network right now.

When Coca-Cola advertises on TV, it does not expect you to stop watching at that moment to run out to the store for a Coke. Why should Web advertisers? Instead, perhaps there could be a “Go There Later” button that automatically takes me to the advertised site when I am done at the site I am currently visiting. (Of course, DRTV advertisers do expect you to stop watching right then to call. But they expect you to do that based on a minute or two of information, not a thin little banner or drop-down window.)

E-Mail Ads Need Help, Too

What about e-mail advertising? Again, it is great for existing customer relationships. And, of course, it is so much cheaper than direct mail. But here is the problem:

All direct marketers know how difficult it is to get someone to notice our mailing among all the other mail that someone receives each day. So we use all sorts of different formats, tricks, graphics, bursts and action devices to get the job done. We still fail most of the time: Most mailers are very happy with a 3 percent to 6 percent response rate, which means a 94 percent to 97 percent failure rate.

But with e-mail, we cannot even use formats or graphics. All we have is the brief subject line that appears on the list of e-mail — an often extensive list. I have no tool, except a very personalized teaser or an incredible offer, to set myself apart in that list. It is even easier to click the delete button than it is to throw a direct mail piece in the trash. Even if I get you to read my message, I still have to get you to click on my link instead of doing what you are online for in the first place.

For e-mail marketing to be effective in an acquisition — as opposed to a customer relationship — mode, additional tools have to be made available to marketers.

A Click Is Not a Customer

I will take just a few seconds to mention what direct marketers know: A lead usually is not very valuable unless it is a qualified lead. So sites like iWon.com that literally bribe people to click on advertisements exist as a result of an ill-advised measuring function. If advertisers are going to pay based on click-throughs, then it pays for a site to offer click-through incentives. But what is a click-through really worth, especially if the customer is just doing it to get a few sweepstakes entries? For the Web to become a really useful marketing tool, there must be a better way to measure its effectiveness.

My Fearless Predictions

It is dangerous to make predictions about a phenomenon that is so rapidly evolving. After all, in a matter of months, the premises on which these thoughts are based may have changed completely. But what the heck, here are a few predictions anyway:

* As I mentioned earlier, I think the Web will have advertising that momentarily interrupts a site completely to bring you a full-screen ad message. And maybe some sort of “Go There Later” button will be established that does not require you to stop what you're doing to go to the advertised site, which is crucial for sites that are media in themselves — not cyberstores — and depend on the ability to attract advertisers to make money.

* Eventually, e-mail subject areas will have graphics capability. One day, you might actually see a screen full of thumbnail envelopes instead of a text-only list.

* Traditional media, particularly direct mail and especially self-mailers, will be used even more often to lure consumers to sites. You also will see greater acceptance of Web addresses — instead of phone numbers — as response devices for DRTV media. It may be the only way that cybermedia can attract enough visitors to offer advertisers the numbers they want. It is really the only way online stores can effectively reach enough consumers to achieve critical mass. For these stores to rely on Web advertising alone would be like a bricks-and-mortar chain advertising in only the malls in which it is located.

In order for the Web to become a viable advertising medium, all that and more will have to be accomplished. And I have no doubt it will be because the very existence of most commercial Web sites depends on it.

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