Online Marketing, Now Ready for Primetime

By Carl Fremont

It WASN'T TOO LONG AGO that online marketing was in the doghouse. How things have changed in just a few years. Online advertising spending has risen dramatically in recent years. Just as important, the increase is being driven by the country's largest and most respected brands.

Yet, online marketing remains a mystery to many marketers - even those who have been experimenting with online advertising for years. Fortunately, some principles are beginning to emerge to help guide our practices. Because the online medium lends itself so well to measurement and constant adjustment, we can now answer some of the most fundamental questions about this remarkable channel.

Which online techniques are most successful? When advertising online, the two most important considerations are the customer and the context: Who are you trying to reach, and what are they already doing online? One of the most important things we have learned about branding online is that it can be much more effective to distribute your content to those sites where people already visit - for information and advice, for fun and entertainment, to exchange ideas, and to keep up with the latest news and trends - than it is to build a fancy stand-alone site and try to get people to go there.

A customer might very well log on to search specifically for information on cruise vacations, so an offer placed on a relevant travel site is likely to generate responses. But a customer is less likely to go online specifically to research an item such as a toothbrush or a disposable razor. Nevertheless, there is a place for these products online. The key is to create a branded experience that entertains and engages the customer in the context of something they log on to enjoy, all the while reinforcing the brand message.

When Gillette set out to introduce its new Venus razor to teenage girls, the company piggybacked on girls' interests in fashion, music, and relationships by building branded quizzes into popular teenage sites. The quizzes were fun and engaging, and girls eagerly forwarded them to their friends. This natural viral component got girls interacting with each other and with the Gillette brand in ways that built consideration and purchase intent for the Venus razor. In a different context, when a business-to-business marketer incorporated information from its own Web site onto the sites of other small business service providers frequented by its target customers, within two months the Web was generating the second-highest volume of leads, at the lowest cost per lead.

How do I integrate online marketing into my overall marketing effort? Many clients still organize according to marketing channel. So they assign responsibility for advertising to one group, responsibility for direct mail to another, telemarketing and customer service is assigned to yet another group, and still another group is put in charge of Internet marketing. The problem with this approach is that everybody is worrying about his or her assigned channels and nobody is worrying about the customers. You should allocate marketing responsibilities to match specific customer segments, so teams can develop a coordinated, engaging approach for reaching 13-year-old girls interested in downhill skiing, for example, or gun owners in the Midwest aged 30 to 45.

When you are focused on specific customers - what they care about, how they behave, which media they use for what activities - then you'll find that your marketing efforts integrate more easily and naturally because they line up to achieve a common goal.

What is the right mix of online and offline? The best media mix will depend on - surprise! - who your target customer is and what you are trying to achieve. It is now well understood that customers use many channels when considering purchases, so the question is not what kinds of people use which media, but what mix of media different types of people use, and for what purpose. There's no sense including Instant Messaging as part of your marketing mix if it's inconsistent with your brand and unfamiliar to your intended audience. Unfortunately, there's not enough research yet to make a precise determination of what the perfect media mix should be for a given category or customer group.

There is a strong business case to be made for making the Internet part of your marketing efforts, especially if you care about reaching that ever-increasing segment of consumers for whom the Internet has become ingrained into everyday life. When you include online advertising as part of your media mix, and include it in a way that is appropriate for your customer and your business, you can achieve far more than is possible with traditional advertising alone.

Carl Fremont is director of worldwide media services at Digitas.

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