Why Big Brands Should Adopt The Fastest Growing Online Ad Vehicle

In this newsletter and other publications, we've all noted the remarkable growth of online lead generation in the last few years. In 2006 alone, the category recorded more than a 70% increase in ad spending, making it the fastest growing online ad vehicle by far. Faster than search, faster than display.

The reasons for lead generation's growth may be debated, but marketers clearly recognize the value in gaining permission to add an individual to their database and send him or her direct, one-to-one communications -- especially in an increasingly crowded marketing landscape.

In essence, online lead generation is the first step in starting the all-important dialogue with consumers. As P&G's CMO Jim Stengel recently pointed out, that's the ultimate goal of today's marketer: "It's not about new media models or new tools, it's about engaging with people in a two-way relationship."

And yet, beyond requisite banner and search campaigns, many big brands seem to be concentrating their online efforts on high-profile, hot trends, pouring their resources into creating online video and cultivating user-generated content, for example. Such vehicles can be a great way to build awareness and brand equity, but they could be greatly augmented by appropriately integrated lead generation that will help open up the conversation with consumers and build relationships.

When I consider this scenario, two of online video's biggest successes come to mind: BMW and Smirnoff. BMW, of course, pioneered the online video craze with its slickly produced "The Hire" short film series featuring big-name Hollywood directors and stars. The manufacturer's site says the films have been viewed more than 100 million times. And Smirnoff has generated quite a buzz of its own with its hilarious preppy-gangster rap send-up "Tea Partay," which promoted the launch of Smirnoff Raw Tea. By my count, the spot has been viewed on YouTube alone at least 3 million times.

While I certainly don't suggest these videos are anything but a runaway success, I do think each company could benefit by capitalizing on the attention they've generated to begin a true dialogue with their target consumers. Smirnoff, for instance, directs viewers to a special site where they're invited to "Join the Tea Partay." However, joining consists only of watching the video again. The company could have integrated lead generation at the outset of the video or just following it, inviting consumers to join for ongoing communications or a special promotion. Each form submitted could be verified for age as well as contact information. Smirnoff could also target 21-only consumers across the Internet on the front end by leveraging a lead generation network.

Beyond pursuing in-market car shoppers, BMW could similarly use an online lead generation program, targeted by household income level, to fuel a communication strategy that builds ongoing relationships with both current and prospective owners.

Of course, despite its lack of ubiquity, online lead generation is being used by many notable brands in a broad range of categories. Examples of those doing a great job include Wal-Mart, P&G, Netflix, BMG and Astra Zeneca.

In my experience, all it takes is a taste of the vehicle's cost-efficiency to build a true believer. Once a brand discovers it, in fact, I've found it typically shifts sizable dollars into its campaign, ramping up its buy from a $10,000 test, to a $100,000 verification of the test to a $1 million full-blown program. It's these brands that are winning the race to build relationships with consumers, and leaving competitors behind.

Just the same, I see the playing field leveling off in the next year as more and more big brands test online lead generation and commit significant ad dollars, resulting in an even faster growth rate than in 2006. In fact, I predict the category will double its size in 2007. After all, if the ultimate goal is a two-way relationship with consumers, what could be better for starting that relationship than a vehicle whose specific purpose is to gain consumers' permission to talk to them?

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