An interesting opinion piece on Minsiders, authored by Accord Media president Marta Wohrle, dovetails off a panel discussion whether behavioral targeting and bigger ads—two buzzwords that have captivated online advertising punditry ever since the market drifted into the doldrums—were the answer to lift online advertising growth. I thought this was an interesting insight:
When I think about old media, it strikes me that it has been very good at relationships with advertisers and rather poor at cultivating relationships with its consumers. The thing about digital media is that it has gone way too far the other way. Audiences are center and front of successful Web sites and, of course, the whole kit and caboodle when it comes to social media. Advertising, on the other hand, has been commoditized.
While it’s true that technology has created some failures in the way it’s been implemented, I don’t think a focus on targeting and exploiting technology is the root of the problem, although I fully agree that publishers’ focus on them at the exclusion of what makes successful advertising work presents an interesting opportunity. But publishers differ.
Large publishers with direct traffic
The large portal sites, the ESPNs, Dictionary.coms and Hulus of the online world, stitch together large, agglomerated audiences. Browsing behavior can be aggregated and analyzed to paint a picture of broad interests, but since these sites rely much more on casual browsing than active searching, granular information on what purchasing decisions lie within the realm of possibility of their viewers is generally impossible to come by.
Television’s advertising model has proven broad interests and large audiences rely on novelty, creativity and humor to make the message penetrate viewers’ skulls. With the Web you have the possibility of interactivity, although without exceptional novelty, there usually isn’t the incentive to engage. Non-interactive ads need to inject the interactivity of gaming (like Innovid does) to make it compelling. And any novelty that becomes a hit will not last that way for long–today’s hot is tomorrow’s boring. Effective advertising for large publishers will always be a moving target. In this case, IAB’s call for the unleashing of the creative spirit and the OPA’s new large-format ads, are attempts by these bodies for their large publisher members to stay a step ahead of the game.
Medium- and Small-Publishers with Search Traffic
Although not strictly exclusive of the largest publishers (think About.com and the well-SEOed New York Times) the SMEs of the online world are often less equipped at amassing large audiences as they are at delivering content to a large number of individual searchers. Instead of a huge audience of people you know share a love of football but you don’t know much else about them, search publishers identify 1,000 microaudiences with niche interests and deliver each of them a piece of content that provides advertisers with precise information about what they want to buy and maybe even when.
With the lack of scale at delivering jaw-dropping creative for people interested in hummingbird feeders, publishers have relied on contextual advertising’s ability to mate niche advertisers with niche content. What’s been missing here is not necessarily more engaging advertising (although that can’t hurt), but better targeting. When niche publishers identify visitors with an intense interest in gas masks, then serving up ads for Halloween masks represents a huge missed opportunity. Likewise, it’s a failure of behavioral targeting to not know that someone looking at an article on interest rates after spending several months reading about cars online is probably a pretty good candidate to close a deal with.
So where does that leave the agencies and ad networks? What do they have to focus on: targeting technology or creativity? Depending on the breadth of publishers they’re hoping to work with, advertisers are going to learn quickly that they shouldn’t be picking one.