A Super Post-Bowl Question

The acid flashback hit hard upon first walking in the door. There was Allison Hemming, founder of the Pink Slip Parties, cheerful as ever at the entrance, sponsored by The World Wide Web Artists Consortium (WWWAC). On more than one occasion, one could overhear someone asking a friend, "Hey, is that Courtney Pulitzer?"

These were the sights and sounds at the Silicon Alley "Back in the Day" Bash, evoking the times when you could hold a drinking game during Super Bowl Sunday to down a beer every time Monster or E*Trade aired an ad, and no one would be well enough to drive home until Thursday.

A few things have changed since then, of course. Thank heavens.

The most telling sign at the event was the number of people who asked me, "So what dot-com did you used to work for?" The question threw me off the first couple times. I'm still a believer, an evangelist even - and proud of it. Yet a number of the former die-hards have left to work for banks and universities, while the still-active dot-com workforce learned there's more to fashion than blue shirts and khaki pants (though this columnist is donning the uniform in tribute as he writes this piece).



Analysis of the Super Bowl has changed too. The conversation's starting to change, but it's not going far enough.

While accepting this is subjective, it seems there are many more articles about the return on investment of Super Bowl ads this year. MarketWatch: "Super Bowl Ads: Punt of No Return?" Knowledge@Wharton: "The $2.4 Million Question: What is the ROI for Super Bowl Ads?" Forbes: "Super Pricey: A Super Bowl ad now costs $2.4 million. Never mind whether it's worth it. Let's party."

Let's try to understand where it's coming from - and where it's going.

One of the Internet's rallying cries was that marketing could be accountable. When the going got tough, however, a number of parties - including portals, content sites, trade groups, and online ad agencies -tried to turn the attention to advertising's branding benefits. After all, 0.003 percent click-through rates were underwhelming when selling the medium. All the while, search marketing never lost its 'live or die by ROI' mentality.

This isn't to cast a negative light on display advertising. Online display ads and paid search ads have branding benefits that we still haven't examined to their fullest. There are only so many research firms, trade groups, and sponsors out there who are coming out with this data.

Meanwhile, search has been saying over and over again, "Let's prove ourselves. We'll show you the returns." Look at Google AdWords: "Start gaining new customers in less than 15 minutes." Check out Overture's Precision Match: "Instead of looking for customers, what if they found you?"

It's not about visibility, or eyeballs. When my mother, a real estate agent, talks about her house-hunting customers, my father jokes, "They haven't bought anything yet, so how are they customers?" The search industry means real customers.

Over the last several years, paid search spending ballooned from a pittance to 40 percent of ad spending, Yahoo! acquired Overture, Google issued its IPO, and MSN, AOL, and Ask Jeeves all upped their games. Ad agencies, technology companies, search engine marketing agencies, and advertisers all fueled the growth, made possible ultimately by consumer acceptance. The media has dutifully played its role as well, disseminating the messaging.

This led to article after article asking, as Super Bowl XXXIX rolled around, "What's the ROI?" The advertisers themselves point to the various indices showing skyrocketing online traffic right before, during, and after the game.

Here's the next question to ask: "What are advertisers doing to ensure they're getting the best returns?"

Super Bowl ads are, for the foreseeable future, TiVo-proof. In fact, after the game, TiVo reported which ads were replayed most. For $2.4 million, advertisers and their agencies rule the media, and it's hard to resist that burst of fame and glory when you're able to buy in.

Yet sharp marketers need to convincingly demonstrate that this is about more than fame and glory and a backstage photo op with the Black Eyed Peas. They need to be ready for the onslaught of searches for them, their brands, and terms related to the commercials (like "Tabasco girl" and "Diana Pearl" this year). They need to understand reverse direct marketing - reaching out to the customers seeking the business.

Then, when the consumers are looking for the commercials and related content (asking questions such as, "Who's the Tabasco girl?" and "What's up with Diana Pearl?"), the marketers are there to meet them. Otherwise, if that customer winds up at a blog, or at Ad Age, or at the FeedRoom, the cost of missed opportunities add up.

Of course, there are other pressing questions too, such as, "Will Donovan McNabb ever have a chance to overcome his first-Bowl jitters?"

For Donnie and the advertisers, there's always next year.

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