The question popped up recently during a debate regarding the strategic allocation of media dollars. I wrote it down because it struck me as a fundamental question that needed to be addressed -- one I thought had already been addressed adequately, but maybe not.
First off, we have to be clear that the role online can play is first and foremost dependent on the objectives of the marketer. Marketer focusing their attention on driving consideration and intent find that online becomes a dominant component, because of its ability to provide engagement with the consumer. No other form of media is as capable of driving engagement effectively as online -- and the facts support this statement.
Of course, no one really debates the value of online at driving engagement, but funnily enough, people do still debate its ability to drive awareness. The debate centers on the ability of TV to drive a mass audience in a single sitting vs. the aggregate audience that can be amassed from an online site over the course of a day or week. I cannot argue about the impact that TV has; it is and always will be the most important vehicle for driving brand awareness, but TV generates a lot of waste in addition to its size.
If you look at recent Nielsen Ratings for the week ending June 14, the top-rated show outside of the NBA Finals was "The Mentalist," reaching an audience of 11.6 million viewers (which breaks down to 8.7 million HH audience and a 7.6 rating/12 share). That is certainly a large audience, especially for TV in the summer time, but examine some of the top rated online sites and you'll be impressed as well. According to Quantcast, Google drives about 140 million visitors per month, with MSN at around 122 million, Yahoo at 119 million, and Facebook at 91.2 million. Those are very large audiences, but what I find even more interesting is that with Google, MSN, Yahoo and Facebook I can target the specific segment of the audience that I want, whereas on TV I cannot, because there's no addressability with TV. That means my effective targeting in online vs. TV is much higher, and therefore my waste is lower. It translates into being able to drive a more efficient awareness online than in TV.
Of course, a marketer can always make the argument that banners and full page takeovers are not as effective as a 30-second commercial, but I would argue that point as well. According to a recent Online Publishers Association study that tracked 80 online brand campaigns that were using standard IAB units, one in five of the exposed audience conducted searches related to the ads, and one in three visited the brand's site. That implies these campaigns were very well targeted, but it also demonstrates the power of online at driving consideration in the mind of the consumer. Once the users got to the brand sites, they spent an average of 50% more time than the average visitor, which further cements this perception of value. This seems to support the idea that you can generate not only awareness, but action, in the same units.
Online video may not yet be as dominant as it should be, but it's growing. More and more people are spending time online with video and more sites are offering video every day, so it's feasible to put together a recommendation for using online video across an aggregate of sites to amass an audience which is the same or greater than any single TV show. It's feasible to do a roadblock of online video across multiple partners that would reach 11.6 million people all at the same time; however, it's also probable to reach that size of an audience with a higher degree of targeting than you can achieve on TV.
I don't intend this column to be meant as a war being waged against TV (I still think highly of TV), but I do intend it to be read by the people still holding onto the falsehood that TV is the only way to reach your audience with impact. Having to engage in a debate about whether awareness can be had online is like engaging in a debate about whether the sky is blue; it's pointless.
I hope this article closes the book on the question of whether online can be an awareness tool or not.
Do you agree?