Online Advertising is Fighting Back Off the Ropes, Part II
Rich Media...Lots of It
If search is driving a good deal of the investment in online, then apparently, large formats and innovative ad units - not to mention publishers' post-bubble willingness to deploy these placements - is really sealing the deal among the bigger brands. "The biggest shift we have seen is that clients are seeing that this is a branding medium, and I would attribute all of that to formats. If it looks like an ad and feels like an ad, maybe it will work like an ad," says Rubin. Apparently, the money is flowing there, in some cases more so than to search. According to Lanctot, about 30 percent of Avenue A ad dollars are going to rich media, up from 10 percent two years ago.
In fact, rich media is why McDonald's is here, and among the most compelling reasons was the fact that the burger-meister made its legendary announcement earlier this year that it was shifting substantial money from other ad platforms to the Web. The company will double its level of spending online this year and next, says Neil Perry, senior director Internet marketing. "The single greatest factor allowing big brands to get involved is the change in the Internet to larger, more impactful ad sizes. It would be difficult to sell our salads on one of those banners or buttons," he says.
The company recently completed its biggest online campaign yet, along with the first of several large-scale interactive pushes planned for this year. Rich media takeovers pitched a new premium salad item to women on channels at MSN.com and iVillage's front page for five days. Perry needed sites like these that had both great reach, but also had good cross-ethnic coverage in Hispanic and African-American demos. Just as important was that now, he can find sites that handle such ambitious creative. "This type of advertising is incredibly impactful, and it gets to the announcement factor," says Perry.
With rich media established online, food and package goods vendors now get the branding power they always wanted, but with that added, special interactive pay off. "You get a higher-level of engagement with the product. On TV, 30-second spots roll by, and if you still have a question on the salad, you are out of luck," says Perry. Apparently a lot of women had these questions, because as a direct result of the campaign's click-throughs, the McDonald's Web servers ran at 95 percent of capacity and at double the usual traffic rate for 17 straight days.
While some argue that the acceleration in rich media is ringing a death knell for the banner (again), Lanctot is quick to argue that these older, direct response vehicles are also proving effective in concert with their flashier brethren. "We found it a very effective strategy to introduce a concept with a high-impact, high-reach rich media ad, and then follow it up with high-frequency, low-cost reminder advertising." Slowly, the Web is getting beyond an old argument, that it couldn't decide whether to be a direct sales or a branding vehicle. Media buyers are starting to become more comfortable with the idea that the two ad types can co-exist and even reinforce one another, just as direct marketing infomercials and brand-boosting Super Bowl ads share the airwaves.
Mixing It Up
While search and rich media are proving their mettle on their own, and often for different marketing goals, combining the power of both is becoming a compelling reason to increase online media's share. iDeutsch's pharmaceutical client, Novartis, substantially reallocated its budget in 2003 for the Lamisil nail fungus product to put between 5 percent and 10 percent of spending online as part of a massive cross media mix. "We see it as a surround sound approach for all of the touch points," says Christine Sakdalan, brand marketing manager, Novartis. The Lamisil online campaign effectively deployed the one-two punch of putting the product in the path of consumers as they sought information, but also using an oversized treatment that approximated a TV spot. With a colorful cartoon "anti-mascot" in its TV campaign, Novartis extended the character in rich media treatments at WebMD and other health-specific sites, while also running text ads off of search engine keywords and searches within health sites.
More brand managers like Sakdalan are coming to see the Web occupying a unique place in the consumer buy cycle, so that spending here is increasingly critical. TV pushes awareness, but the interactivity of online pulls the consumer to the key point in pharmaceutical marketing, bringing the brand name up with his or her doctor. "We actually feel that people who are seeking information online are further along in the continuum path," she says. Compared to last year, with a lower online spend, the 2003 campaign helped boost the product's site traffic 300 percent. "We are seeing really good results with our 800 number, and the bottom line is that our sales are going up," she says.
Making the Case
The search and rich media combination of proven online success also seems to be helping the industry bring home some of the metrics and arguments that the IAB, OPA, and others have generated in recent years. The fact that the Web has a special hold on at-work audiences is starting to gain traction among offline retailers and even local vendors. Carlisle's SFInteractive runs daytime ads for Noah's Bagels, in the form of rich media treatments that lets cubicle-dwellers print out a discount coupon before lunch.
Rich media may have been the format that helped convince McDonald's media buyers that the Web was ready for branding, but it was the accompanying metrics that sealed the deal for others in the company. "The external research, especially the [IAB] cross-media optimization study, was very impactful with convincing our franchises of the effectiveness of online," says McDonald's Perry.
Search and rich media are giving clients good reasons to come back to the interactive table. However, many agencies also say that buyers are now coming back with more open and savvier minds, and there is a willingness to follow the metrics of the Web rather than fear its checkered past and to engage the medium's inevitable complexities. "During the hype, the decisions were based on hype and fear," says Stuart, "Now clients are making data-driven decisions. What data points do we have that this is working for my brand and my situation?"
Humbler Contender Still Smells Blood
This may be a comeback without the kid's former bravado, because in a post-bubble Web, nearly everyone is reticent to sound too excited, even the industry's most visible cheerleader. "I want to be careful that we not repeat the hype we had before," says IAB's Stuart.
And there are more than a few fans still reserving their cheers. After all, haven't the big brands been promising to take online more seriously since, what, 1998? "A lot of people are talking and a lot are not spending," insists Ramsey. His research firm, eMarketer, pegs online revenue growth in 2003 at $6.3 billion, up 4.8 percent, and pretty much in line with ad spending across platforms. "I'm still seeing a tremendous amount of resistance. I hope we're wrong with our estimates. By 2006, we'll be back to where we were in 2000, but that's after a monumental effort that will take place within corporations."
And even online advertising's most fervent boosters avoid any talk of boon times. Revolutionary boasting has been replaced by talk about wars of attrition. "It's going to be case by case, battle by battle here," says Ramsey, who, like a number of people in the industry, is reacting to recent success with "cautious optimism" this time around. Much headway has been made in changing corporate attitudes towards Web marketing by the relentless research, the encouraging case studies, and even the high-profile promises of tectonic budgetary shifts to interactive spending. But in the end, most realize now that Web advertising's comeback will not be overwhelming or particularly dazzling. It will get here by flipping one media buyer and client at a time.
Despite the new humility, both clients and agencies are beginning to discuss more boldly that the money that is starting to flow to online, is coming from platforms that are losing their luster, especially network and cable. As the Web adopts offline metrics, so too are other media being judged for their accountability. "TV pricing goes up and its performance goes down," says Stuart. "That story only goes in one direction. TV is very vulnerable to losing dollars." In fact, more clients like McDonalds and Novartis seem willing to discuss the Web in relation to the apparent limitations of other media. "In TV, you can only do so much, and that's why it's a synergistic effect," says Sakdalan. "You can raise awareness on TV and remind in print, but there is more interaction through the Web." Likewise, Perry says that his campaign for McDonald's premium salads not only delivered powerful results, but it also satisfied his consumers in unique ways. "The best thing about Internet advertising is that those people who want more information can get more. You can't say that about radio, TV, or print."
That's what we like to hear from a contender - some good old-fashioned trash talk.