Looking Past Shiny New Objects

So far, the first quarter of 2010 has seen no shortage of buzz. There's been an onslaught of new products and, with each announcement, a great deal of speculation about its viability. Take the media frenzy about Apple's iPad. It very well may be as transformative as people seem to think. It could revitalize the publishing and music industries; it might change the way people experience the web and personal computing. It might also just be a giant iPhone -- with the same lack of flash support and a similarly frustrating inability to multi-task.

My point is not to singularize the iPad, but to point out that these same types of questions circulate not just about consumer products, but about online video, social, and mobile advertising as well. How will user choice affect pre-roll video ads? Does Ning provide a deeper social relationship with brands than Facebook does? Will consumers adopt mobile commerce?

For many of these questions, only time will tell. But the one thing that the teams on the hook for these products' successes should keep in mind is that it doesn't matter how shiny their new objects are; they have to perform well. While the iPad may not be courting advertising dollars, online video companies, social networks, and mobile content developers certainly are. They need to show measureable results and transparent returns to advertisers, or nothing else matters.



Take Google. Yes, it creates products that are sexy to consumers, but through and through, this is the company that meets its revenue goals based on ROI-focused advertising. On Jan. 20, Google announced its strongest revenue growth in a year. The company saw 17% year-over-year growth and quadrupled its profits to $1.97 billion.

Google didn't perform so well in a tough economic climate by playing with advertisers' dollars. It provided concrete returns in the form of paid search and content network advertising -- sold on a performance basis. Advertisers paid Google only based on the results it generated for them, and clearly, those results were plentiful.

There are few people who would argue that performance media are as trendy as online video or mobile apps. But there's no reason a schism between interesting advertising and accountability needs to exist. As an industry, we need to keep innovating -- but we also need to keep our eye on what matters: whether it works. Dollars continue to move from offline to online because marketers believe that digital technology provides a safer bet -- because it's accountable.

If you were an automaker, what are the first things you would keep in mind when developing a car? Before bells and whistles (which you would certainly want), you would make sure that the vehicle you designed would work -- as in start and stop -- and would be safe. Without functionality and safety, leather seats and MP3 player hookups are irrelevant. If you can manage to combine the fancy with the functional, you've got yourself a solid car.

The same goes for online advertising. When you're developing products and platforms, shiny is great -- but more importantly, it needs to work, and it needs to be safe. We can't all be Google, but we can take a page from its playbook.

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