Internet advertising's latest new thing: rehashing old ad metrics and formats

Digital advertisers are souring on metrics and techniques they created.

Once upon a time, the whole breakthrough of Internet advertising was the promise of targeting prime consumer prospects more precisely than ever dreamed of, without the slop and waste of mass media. But a funny thing happened on the way to advertising utopia.

“[D]espite all the bravado of the new media world that was going to disrupt and disintermediate the traditional media model,” says Antony Young, CEO of Mindshare North America, “all it’s done is reinforce it.”

  • Facebook is now building its financial future on selling display ads — clickable, miniature versions of the kind of billboard advertising you see along I-64.
  • The fastest-growing digital advertising medium right now is video — in essence commercials like those you’ve been seeing since channel 6 was the only television station in Richmond, Virginia and the South (and about the same size as on those early television screens).
  • Editorial content on iPads is now interrupted by print or video ads, just like, in principle, articles in the Richmond Times Dispatch or any magazine.
  • Pandora founder Tim Westergren told advertising executives that his online-music service (interrupted by radio-like commercials) was just like radio, and it needs to be measured like traditional radio, with an Arbitron-like ratings system — the system WRVA, K95, Lite 98, and Richmond’s other commercial radio stations use to sell ad time — to compete on equal footing with traditional radio stations for radio advertising budgets.
  • The Interactive Advertising Bureau, of all organizations, is working to get the industry to switch from unique visitors and time on site to — are you sitting down? — reach,  frequency and ratings.

Why the Great Leap Backward?

So what happened to what Young calls “this ever social media world of participation and personalization”? Maybe it got mugged by reality — several realities, in fact. Some of them have to do with the way the medium works, some with the different ways that digital and traditional advertising tend to work, some with how audiences work, and some with unrealistic expectations.

Measuring the unmeasurable

One of the reasons digital audience metrics are so hard to sell to advertisers is that they’re so hard to calculate. John Trimble, Pandora’s Chief Revenue Officer, says his people have had to do manual calculations to turn unique visitors and time spent into average quarter-hours, among other measurements. “It’s been a bit of an inhibitor for us,” he (under)stated.

Waste, not precision

Pioneering retailer John Wanamaker once said, “Half my advertising is wasted. The problem is, I don’t know which half.”

According to Econsultancy Digital Marketers’ 2011 Email Marketing Industry Census, 55% of e-mail marketers don’t test regularly for effectiveness, 43% don’t even do landing page testing, and 13% never test at all. Only 12% of companies know how many of their e-mails are wasted through nondelivery, and that percentage has been declining each year.

Technicians, not persuaders

Too much of digital marketing’s manpower and mindpower has been devoted to gaming the search-engine algorithms, at the expense of figuring out how to persuade consumers once they get to your site. Unfortunately, search engines don’t spend money to buy your products or services. People do. (See here and here.) Getting them to buy requires capturing and maintaining their attention and persuading them with carefully thought out sales arguments about what’s in your brand for them — techniques which social-media and other kinds of non-display advertising practitioners seem to have discarded.

Ignoring how people work in the marketplace

The whole rationale for social-network marketing is that you could more efficiently and more effectively sell to people by establishing long-term, meaningful dialogs between them and your brand, or by posting games and polls and other participatory devices that would build lots of clicks and likes. Things haven’t worked out that way. Clicks and likes don’t automatically turn into sales, and ongoing meaningful dialogs take lots of time — calendar, not just clock, time. Consumers are habituated to getting their brand information in quick, telegraphic bites. They want to learn about benefits of brands they’re considering, not establish meaningful dialogs with them. When they see an ad or commercial — in digital or online media — they know how and whether to absorb what each is telling them. For the most part, they lack interest in long-term wooing through dialog and often fail to connect promotions, charity drives or whatever with what your product will do for them.

People aren’t necessarily looking for friendships with and personal communications from a brand. They’re fine with impersonal communications from an advertiser. Often they resent pseudo-personal form communications from the same organizations whose commercials they like to watch.

This is not to say that digital advertising can’t be a powerful medium. It can be and sometimes is. But it works best when it learns from its older brothers.