The problem for advertisers, who with their increased online spending, have finally acknowledged that the Internet is a viable ad medium, is this "OK, we admit we must put our clients into the online environment, but where? The Internet is a big scary place How do I know where my ads will be most effective?"
Buying the Internet is not terribly different from buying offline media (except that it offers more immediate audience data, faster response to ads, a nearly limitless amount of space and time to tell your story and you can know if and when your ads are making sales).
You buy a TV show or a magazine ad that uses dated audience projections to promise delivery of a certain kind of audience. Beyond the demographics, you look at the media environment because it drives further assumptions about the probable success of your ad. What does the environment say about my ad? Is the show too racy for my client? It is too gloomy? It is just too unpredictable (think Super Bowl halftime)?
The same measures should be applied to websites. Is the content appropriate? Is the site trustworthy? Are the "right people" on the site? Just like you have come to know and trust offline media brands to be appropriate ad environments, so too can you come to know and love online media brands.
The key word here is brands.
One of the reasons New York Times Digital, which publishes NYTimes.com and Boston.com, said recently that its sales grew 27 percent in the last quarter to $25 million, Tribune Co.'s interactive revenues were up 37 percent in the quarter and the Washington Post Co. said its online publishing business increased revenue by 34 percent to $14.2 million is that their online brands are extensions of their offline brands which consumers have come to know and trust.
While the Internet may have an infinite number of websites, there are only a handful of sites that have become trusted brands with sufficient audience traffic. Some like Kiplinger.com, Fodors.com, and Zagat.com are offspring of traditional media and enjoy some audience duplication. Others like MapQuest.com and Expedia.com are pure Internet brands that built reputations as quality sites that provide a valuable service to online customers so traffic is largely built on customer loyalty. Just last week, Google was named "global brand of the year" for the second year in a row by New York-based Interbrand, which annually ranks the most high-impact brands of the world's goods and services. Google beat out No. 2 Apple Computer for the top spot.
Just like newly launched magazines have to prove themselves in the marketplace and each fall, new TV shows have to attract viewers to grab the attention of advertisers, the Internet has been through a vetting process where site visitors have voted with their clicks for the sites that they like and return to with frequency. In some cases like YAHOO, AOL and MSN there is plenty of mass that can deliver audience numbers far higher than even the best-rated TV show or highest circulation magazine. In other cases, there are specialty sites like Nasdaq.com that attract audiences of extraordinary composition for advertiser in endemic categories.
I realize that as an industry we are inconsistent in our audience measurement, but that is fast changing and should not be an impediment. Even at the lowest possible number, the Internet represents a huge value over traditional media. As audience management becomes more widespread, you will see a huge up tick in response as ads are served to appropriate audiences and in the end, the greatest accountability of any medium on earth.
Just as media planners keep track of only a portion of the 12,000 magazines published in the U.S. there is no reason to keep track of more than a few hundred websites. Stick with the brands you know; they are brands the consumer knows.