Right around New Year's Day, everyone fires up a crystal ball and predicts the future. So when 2007 gave way to 2008, many believed this would be the year that growth in display advertising would accelerate, fueled by marketers moving branding dollars online.
Not that search and "performance-based" display advertising have peaked. Rather, their growth has slowed as DM opportunities have saturated. So despite the weakened economy, online branding is indeed the new growth engine for online media. The question is, is it being done well enough to show the kind of results that build momentum over time, or will marketers quickly lose confidence amidst lackluster results?
I fear the latter. From my viewpoint, online creative is still wildly inconsistent. It often fails to quickly communicate the value proposition (which should happen in three seconds or less) and too rarely takes advantage of the interactive nature of the medium. I see fewer interesting page takeovers, fewer examples of integrated content and less interactivity in the ad space than just a few years ago. I'm told publishers simply do not need to accommodate these tactics in order to sell their inventory ... so they don't. We can at least do a better job with our media planning.
>> Move from mass reach to aggregated micro-targeting: There is no mass audience on the Web. Rather, there are numerous micro-segments that share various characteristics, including demography, technical capability (bandwidth, browser, etc.), point-of-access and Web behavior. Agencies and marketers must begin to use more sophisticated segmentation analytics to understand how these different clusters of consumers relate to their brand, then target only those with a high potential of becoming customers.
>> Shift from consistent messaging to individual relevance:With an understanding of high-potential consumer micro-segments, marketers must differentiate offers and creative in order to increase relevance to each consumer. This approach challenges marketers and creative professionals to think about brands as multi-faceted entities that can express their core values and promises in different ways to different consumers, based on the consumers' needs. Over time, the best brands will establish individual relevance that leads to a dialogue, evolving into a relationship with the consumer.
>> Substitute cost per impressionwith optimized cost per engagement: Most marketers mistakenly believe that branding is a long-term phenomenon that can only be tracked over long periods of time through survey research. As a result, brand campaigns are typically managed for delivery (did we achieve our reach and frequency goals against the target audience?) rather than optimized for results.
My experience at Marketing Management Analytics, however, taught me that there is no long-term branding effect if there is not a demonstrated short-term effect of marketing, and that long-term brand impact is a function of short-term consumer action. With this in mind, online brand campaigns can be optimized against consumer engagement metrics. Use "engagement actions" such as clicking on an ad, visiting a Web site, consuming multiple pages of content, participating in a promotion, signing up for e-mails, requesting product information, etc., as a barometer of how well your campaign connects with consumers, then optimize targeting and creative against them. Over time, strive to improve the "cost of engagement" rather than a cost per impression or cost per click.
>> Change from media-brand halo to take advantage of a personal halo: Old school media planning says that for branding, a quality media brand that surrounds your own brand is worth a premium cost. For a handful of highly respected media brands, this may be true. Consumers may indeed transfer some of the media brand's prestige and trust to the advertiser. But on the Web, consumers put even more trust in their personal connection to the content: their favorite blogs, the Web pages of friends, the consumer-published music or video they "discovered." To connect with the consumer, place your brand in environments they care about on a personal level. An implied endorsement from Disney is great ... the implied endorsement of a best friend is much better.
These steps alone won't fix online branding or fix creative, but they will go a long way to justifying online brand investment and will keep the client dollars flowing.
John Nardone is CEO of [X+1]. (email@example.com)