Commentary

Bullheaded Marketers and Online Naivete

Research people out there are looking under the wrong rocks. You’ve seen the headlines ad nauseam: Online Banners Work; Branding Effective Online; Awareness Built Most Efficient With Interactive Media. Despite the general applause for our medium, we don’t see the gap narrow in budget allocations, and it’s because they’re researching the wrong elements.

Now that they’ve quantitatively proven the effectiveness of online advertising, they need to move on. In particular, they need to do more research on the marketing budget decision makers.

We used to assume that these marketing professionals were affected by market realities and comparative media metrics, but now that those have accrued in the favor of the interactive crowd, we must admit that we were naïve to assume the situation was so simple.

Incidentally, you could argue that marketers ARE spending more online, even in the face of a general media decline, but this piffling increase doesn’t begin to do justice to the existing gap. There is a Legitimacy Gap between the proven effectiveness rates of online and other media relative to their corresponding budget allocations.

My own anecdotal experience shows that there are scads of other factors that often trump a rational decision to spend the next marketing dollar on the Internet:

1. - Prestige is missing in the online field. All over the marketing industry, we find a strange hierarchy of status that depends on the medium in which a professional works. Outdoor advertising people get snubbed by the print people. Print people have an inferiority complex to the TV people. In making a decision to spend a discretionary dollar against online, a marketer lowers his own status among his peers. At least that’s how it is often perceived.

2. - Seniority, and the lack of it, often stymies the online budget. When two marketing managers vie for a budget against each other, the dollars often follow the more senior of the two. And you don’t find too many online media experts who started their careers in the 60s and 70s.

3. - Dot-bomb backlash comes to haunt us. Frankly, I think we deserve a little bit of this because our previous recommendations proved so detrimental to some online startups just a couple years ago. However, the worst marketing decisions made by those failed Internet ventures were their enormous traditional media expenditures, not their online efforts. Were it a just world, the backlash would land harder on the TV folks, but don’t hold your breath (see item 1).

4. - Neck protection and butt covering is rife in the marketing field. Marketing is an odd industry in that brilliant success can be looked upon as irresponsible in later market conditions, and inefficient, stodgy conservatism can be later re-colored as brilliant success. Given that, there’s little incentive for people to take a road less traveled.

5. - And, finally, there’s the accountability issue. I think it’s endearingly sweet that people in the online world have touted accountability as one of the great assets of the online media. It’s true, in fact, that we now have metrics that can go a long way to prove the real effectiveness of interactive media – even for branding and awareness objectives. The problem, of course, is that marketers don’t honestly want accountability. Who wants to be held accountable to real results, when the other media allow you to commission a “media research” study to prove – no matter what – what a brilliant success you are?

Instead of continuing various goose chases (better metrics, contract terms, scale of buys, etc…), attempting to figure out why the marketing dollars haven’t come our way to the degree we deserve them, we should research the marketers themselves. I think it would be highly enlightening – and perhaps entertaining – to see studies explicating the psychology of marketers and the average decision made in certain controlled circumstances.

Of course, then the problem would become a matter of paying for the studies. Site reps and even some marketers are willing to part with cash to study (and study to death) metrics. But wouldn’t it be more useful to those same site reps to commission studies to discover what the barriers are for marketers to make the rational decision of spending more online? That would only be true, I suppose, if the studies were actually intended on creating new knowledge, rather than sufficing as the grist around which the rep can build a press release to tout his own site. Which all goes to make me think that there won’t be a huge rush to start examining the heads of marketers and budget decision-makers.

Until these real factors are revealed very publicly, they will continue to pervert the marketplace. It will take an embarrassment – either through studies, as suggested above, or by one marketer trouncing another with better media decisions – to effect the great change.

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