What Is The Purpose Of Online Advertising?

What is the purpose of online advertising?

Erwin Ephron, godfather of modern media planning, stopped by the Clickable offices for a visit last week. I felt as if he shared 40 years of advertising wisdom in 60 minutes.  He may be an old-timer, but his insights are timeless and highly relevant to our work in digital advertising innovation.

We talked about integration and performance of different media formats, and most importantly, purpose. For example, what is the purpose of television? Awareness. The purpose of print (while it's still around)? In-depth and qualitative communication. The purpose of radio? To connect with shoppers. And the purpose of outdoor advertising? To remind people who are in a position to shop. I know, this all seems simplistic.

But what about online advertising? Surely, search advertising's purpose is to capture shopper intent. It does so extremely well, providing more economic visibility than any other advertising medium. It's made Google one of the most valuable media companies in only a few short years. But what about the rest of online advertising, such as display?

And that's precisely the problem. So far, with the exception of search, online advertising has failed to find its core purpose. And to characterize the rest of online advertising as a single entity wrongly diminishes the challenge, because there are many online ad formats.

The solution? Erwin underscored that we're still lacking fundamental ethnographic research about how people interact with and use online advertising. The problem is that basic. We need to better understand it before we can even begin to think about measuring and connecting it to business performance goals.

Lastly, we arrived at the ultimate truism: If you don't like online advertising, it's easy -- especially easy -- to condition yourself to ignore it. I used to think that  Adblocker Plus, the browser plug-in that removes all ads from your Web experience, was a potential threat to the advertising business. I realize now that it's only a red herring. The human brain subconsciously takes care of the problems of irrelevance, clutter and waste for us -- most of the time.

What do you think?



18 comments about "What Is The Purpose Of Online Advertising? ".
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  1. Tom Jeffrey from Hook, January 30, 2009 at 10:05 a.m.

    One issue that needs to be addressed with online advertising is design, or the lack there of. So much of the ads we see online are just plain ugly and not engaging. There are exceptions. You can see some really nice ads on Pandora. They have worked wonderfully with clients to allow for more creative online ads. It would be great to see more conceptual thought go into online marketing. As far as the true purpose of online, unlike other mediums, I don't think it would be a mistake to say online advertising is to be used for this or that specific task. It truly can be used for branding, promotions, connecting with customers. With the right strategy, creative and message, online can accomplish many goals - so long as you don't try to do everything in one ad.

  2. Farhan Rehmani from RMM Online, January 30, 2009 at 10:05 a.m.

    With online advertising, there are different aspects such as search, banners, email, and landing pages. These are all online advertising, and can be used to support one another, but are as different as print and radio. The neato thing about online advertising is that you can customize these aspects to fit your needs. I believe that is probably the biggest reason why these aspects aren't more defined. I also believe that advertisers look to online advertising as a "savior" to their business instead of looking at it simply as another powerful tool to reach their target.

  3. Rachel Dangermond from OTR Global, January 30, 2009 at 10:09 a.m.

    I agree with each of your points. I don't see online display ads and when I accidentally break my self imposed blinder and see one - it is instantly a negative association. I'm a typical person in what compels me to buy. Snuggies - I'm endeared to this big blanket/poncho/robe-thing because one day when it dropped to 45 degrees here in New Orleans, we all said we were getting Snuggies. The power of TV! My skin care, make up, hair products are all a product of magazine ads. Radio doesn't make me want to go and buy a new car, but I still listen to ads that are clever and compelling. Out of Home - near and dear to my heart - when it's good, it's great. Whoever did last year's VW bug ads deserves a gold star and how can you ignore WWW.WHOCANISUE.COM - simple, to the point. This year is going to be tough, but (I hope) austerity might bring a newfound discipline and reconnection with marketing that matters.

  4. Spider Graham from Trainingcraft, January 30, 2009 at 10:10 a.m.

    The ultimate goal of any campaign, online or off, is 'to get the right message to the right person at the right time'. That said, the multiple feedback loops that come with interactive media allow us to better define who those people are, what they want and when they want it.

    I've heard search brilliantly described as 'an opportunity for a marketer to join a conversation that a consumer is already having with himself'. By looking for and measuring a greater understanding of what online consumers want and are motivated by, there's no reason why other forms of digital marketing can't have the same effectiveness of connectivity that search does...namely, getting the most relevant message in front of a consumer at the best time for them to receive that message.

  5. Mike Kelly from LIN Media, January 30, 2009 at 10:12 a.m.

    As another fan of Erwin's perspective and media understanding, I'll offer the following for consideration:

    Search is, for the most part, at the end of the purchase intent cycle..while it may be the beginning of research or right at the point of purchase, it creates no demad for the product or service.
    Banner, pre-roll, advertorials, mobile and other new media products are emerging as a new platform for awareness and can create demand that is 100% trackable by click-through.
    Just as valuable as click-through though is view-through.The lift in search and brand awareness by view- through is proven in a number of recent studies including those of Magid and Specific Media.
    At any given time only a very small % of the world is in the market for a particular product, thus those in the market will notice and those not in the market will not. This hasn't changed since the advent of advertising.

    There is also a rapidly emerging demo of consumers that do not listen to the radio...they program their own music. They do not read print for their news, they get it when they want it online. For them, the web is many media rolled into one.

  6. Jeff Sherman from, January 30, 2009 at 10:14 a.m.


    Television: pays for content, gives DVR something to forward through

    Radio: air space that airs when most are not listening

    Outdoor: big visibility

    Online: Builds community, connects with content

    Print: wastes budgets, expect for full pages with great creative.

  7. Carolyn Hammock from Euro RSCG, January 30, 2009 at 10:24 a.m.

    I agree with Tom here that online advertising can have various purposes. For branding efforts, one thing that online advertising provides is the ability to engage consumers immediately with the brand. This deeper more involved experience is tough to do with traditional channels.

  8. Robert Formentin from *, January 30, 2009 at 10:26 a.m.

    The internet was built for communicating and knowledge sharing. 40 years after the birth of Arpanet we are still using it the same way: primarily to communicate and gain and share knowledge. Until marketers understand that and accept it (and some do), their programs will largely fail. Educating potential consumers about your products can create demand by build intelligence, awareness and trust. Every other type of online advertising is purely short term.

  9. Marshall Eubanks from AmericaFree.TV, January 30, 2009 at 10:26 a.m.

    What we have found is that the best advertising response is with ads that "go with the flow." People go to sites for a reason - to read about something, or watch video on some topic, etc. They come from somewhere, and will go on to somewhere else. Ads that fit in with that flow (the reason why people come to the site to begin with) tend to have a much higher click through rate than ones that don't. As it says above, people are very good at filtering out clutter, and if they are following one thread, they will tend to ignore extraneous stuff.

  10. Mark McLaughlin, January 30, 2009 at 10:29 a.m.

    The purpose of online display advertising is Relevance, Recency and Engagement. Better targeting increases the likelihood that we are putting the right ad in front of the right consumer (relevance). Delivering one ad impression at a time offers solutions for reaching the right person at the right time (recency) - since Erwin was the person who helped take the work of John Philip Jones and explain to the ad industry in the context of "recency theory," Erwin should be quite good at describing this application of online advertising. And, online display ads offer the consumer a frictionless opportunity to engage with the content (watch the movie trailer, use the car configurator) which is an opportunity to break through the clutter of advertising that is less dependent on heavy levels of frequency. Sadly, only a tiny fraction of online display ads are actually leveraging what they are intended to do well.

  11. Michael Keranen from American Honda, January 30, 2009 at 10:53 a.m.

    I believe online advertising combines all of the above. That is: it is a branding experience creating awareness, it is a consideration experience with in depth content, it is a shopping and buying experience attracting those in market. So it represents tv, radio, print and outdoor all in the online channel. Therefore, as some above have said, you need to understand the various personas that are at your site (as someone said above, go with the flow), and be able to understand the intent (targeting) of the person on your site.

  12. Stacy Smith from Web Advantage, January 30, 2009 at 11:16 a.m.

    I believe that display advertising can be very powerful when it is placed around relevant content. Comparing search to display is like comparing Traditional Direct Marketing efforts to Traditional Media (print, broadcast, outdoor). There are similarities but these are two very different tactics and need to be respected as such versus being compared. As a media person the most important thing to me is to get the campaign in front of the appropriate eyes. If my client is trying to reach expectant mothers I'm not going to run a placement that is RON (run of network). Well, that is, unless it's a network like but even then I would try to stay out of the "parenting teens" section. Bottom line it's all about relevancy of message/product to audience. Banners should never be expected to receive nearly the response seen in search. Search is the a directory, people are specifically looking for something. Banners are for building brand awareness.

  13. Eric Porres from SundaySky, January 30, 2009 at 11:17 a.m.

    The notion of our brain automatically ignoring what's in front of our visual field has been dispelled by a number of folks. Joseph Carrabis writes a terrific article on this very subject here:

    I am quoting one important paragraph:

    "People are supposed to be good at blocking -- not looking -- at ads. Sorry, that's poppycock. You can't not see something that's in your visual field. You can consciously and non-consciously choose to ignore something. To do either, your mind-eye-brain system needs to acknowledge the ad's existence for you to know where not to look, what not to look at, et cetera."

    There are many reasons/benefits for online advertising, but we also need to reshape the dialogue about how we are impacted by what's in front of us.

  14. Bill Caspare from OggiFinogi, INC, January 30, 2009 at 12:46 p.m.

    Online display ads are progressing to capture ad exposure attention time, or what we call dwell time, with some of the newer ad formats, particularly those associated with video. Video content that is associated with brand or when brand is wrapped into the story, such as in longer form or webisodic video is yet to be proven as to its ability to advance brand in any defineable accountability. Multiple points of interactivity when properly executed certainly provide lift but to the point of the article, do we tune out that which our brains tell us is not relevant. I think the answer is yes and no but advanced analytics that can tie ROI to brand advancement (and not the typical Dynamic Logic or Insight Express studies) during and after campaigns complete will tell us the answer, finally!

  15. Craig Mcdaniel from Sweepstakes Today LLC, January 30, 2009 at 1:07 p.m.

    Interestingly, I turn down a fairly large volume of ads (text and image) because of the quality of the sponsor or contents. What works based on running over 20,000 sweepstakes and contest is quality sweepstakes by the Fortune 1,000 companies. It is not uncommon for us to see 200,000 to 300,000 clicks onto a high quality sweep in a fairly short time period. Whether the person entering buys now or not doesn't matter. Keeping the brand name out in front of the public does.

  16. Andrew Zeiger from SourceForge Inc, January 30, 2009 at 1:51 p.m.

    It is not that online advertising has not found it's purpose. It is that as an industry, not all, but on the whole marketers have chosen not to see it. Missing the forest for the trees one might say.
    We stick to old metrics such as click rates and somehow track those to sales and believe that this is really measuring roi. Recognized measurements, most commonly the click are holding back the industry's creativity.
    The notion that one tunes out internet ads is an age old one for all media. TV...everyone goes to the bathroom...print....people just skip the can I be sure that people will see my ad? Dell built its business on the back of print, as did many other companies.
    We have plenty of tools and a canvas that supports audio/video/multiple depths of content that allows a user to learn information from the ad without "the click"or leaving the site that they have presumably come to accomplish something.
    It is remarkable that there is single medium that can allow branding, consideration building and strong call to action and yet we are still trying to discover its "purpose"

    At the end of the day however, it all comes down to "your cost per click"........

  17. Holly Brown from MRM Worldwide, January 30, 2009 at 2:52 p.m.

    What is the purpose of online advertising? It's a good question. As marketers, we continue to learn what does and doesn't work and we have all the tools to measure success if we set our campaigns up appropriately.

    What we have failed to do is help consumers of online content understand the value we can bring to them on their terms. The spray and pray, and build it and they will come approaches are so old school.

    When we focus our efforts on content relevance, and delivering customer utility, then we are using digital to mutual advantage.

  18. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 30, 2009 at 11:56 p.m.

    Max, I think you are going somewhere with this. Not only have you designed your article and premises to induce audience participation, your audience is adding some great insights. Please keep this going and this group. You many find this discussion with this type of response leads to more specific answers to your original question. I would like to follow this, too.

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