Logging In: We Are the Beef

Online ads don't need big buns

In the early 1980s, Wendy's ran a now famous television campaign where a little elderly woman, actress Clara Peller, lifted the top of a hamburger bun only to see a very small patty and asked, "Where's the beef?" It took on such cultural resonance that Walter Mondale used the line on rival Gary Hart during his presidential bid.

One thing that should have been loud and clear through the tumult of the past months is that we know where the beef is: Internet marketing. Online advertising, e-mail and search are the beef, and every other media is just the bun or a nice-to-have pickle.

Tough times force choices. Will marketers facing terribly weak holiday sales turn off TV or tune down search, with its clear conversion cost? Stop e-mailing loyal customers with a known value or eliminate a newspaper buy? Many may not like the answers.

No other medium has the capability to deliver measurable results that allow marketers to glean new knowledge, leading to the continual optimization of those results. It isn't just a momentary spike in sales, pumped by a heavy-up TV campaign - it's knowledge that makes us better at what we do, and makes us better understand our consumers, though the momentary spike is good, too.

This depth of ROI - in the moment and for the future - is the beef. Internet marketing is, at its heart and soul, direct marketing - not like telemarketing or infomercials that intrude and interrupt, but a way to connect consumers to what they want. Direct marketing that enables direct dialogue and learning about the consumer. Direct marketing that is on its way to being unimaginably measurable.

For the past 10 years, we've downplayed this strength as we went after vast "brand marketing budgets." This focus was perceived as the most effective way to compete with TV for the brand manager's attention and budget. We pitched interactive brand experiences that could be deeper and richer than a passive TV spot. We all built them, and many of them live on, abandoned but still accessible with the right URL.

They weren't the wrong thing. They just weren't the most right thing. We put so much blue cheese, guacamole and salsa on the beef, it got a little lost. In doing so, we took on many of the limitations of the media with which we were competing: lack of measurability, high cost and disrespect for the consumer's time. (That last is particularly detrimental to building positive brand relationships.) The emphasis was on pretty much everything but the beef.

We even got lax in our passion for metrics. We ignored the limitations of Nielsen and comScore; those methodologies were acceptable for broadcast, so they'd be okay for us, even if we knew that online we could track real behavior in real-time. We overlooked the discrepancies between numbers reported by ad servers and site servers.

We embraced video as a savior. Pre-roll, post-roll - just transfer one medium's assets to another, without thinking of the differences in measuring viewership. And when that started to get complicated, there were social media, consumer-generated content, and mobile to distract us from getting better at what makes Internet marketing an essential part of the marketing mix: measurable, optimizable results.

Now we are here. Just as in our real lives, downsizing and budgeting is forcing everyone to pay attention to the tools that really get the job done.

As it happens, online marketing offers a proven array of tools that work. We are the beef. Investments in those areas will increase. Investments in tools, applications and companies that improve the quality of our performance will increase. The new interest in laying bare the limitations we still have in getting consistent accurate metrics will bear fruit.

There is a clear path to achieving the best possible results however the economy evolves - measurable, optimizable media that give you actionable knowledge. It's not sexy. But compared to the alternatives, it is certainly better to be the beef.

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