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Back in the 1990s the Internet had something to say to conventional marketers: Don't waste money on people who won't buy from you. If you concentrate only on your best prospects you can pay those people handsomely. We called it targeting.

That's why Internet companies were willing to give people service, content and (even, for a time) PCs. Once they were identified as prospects for specific products (or identified themselves) they could be treated as being far down the sales funnel. You wouldn't have to “waste” money getting into the faces of “suspects” with huge ads for things they neither wanted nor needed. I learned what was wrong with this model while enjoying the last rays of the dying boom, during a week in Hawaii “bought” by my services as a speaker in March 2001. Classmates.com founder Randy Conrads preceded me to the stage. Conrads said targeting was a waste of money. He was only buying “remnant” banner space, on a pay-per-action basis, paying, in the end, 50 cents per thousand. The ads themselves weren't especially creative (or expensive) either. One featured an old picture of his wife, and another old pictures of his employees.

He also showed a report, from an allegedly reputable market research outfit, indicating he was one of the Web's biggest advertisers, spending upwards of $50 million per year. He laughed. He was spending less than one-tenth of that figure. The “researchers” had no idea what he was paying, and the sites were too embarrassed to admit the truth, either.

Since then the truth has made ads free (or nearly so). Led by shady groups like Casino on Net (Internet gambling is illegal in the U.S.), and followed by mass-marketers like X-10, advertisers have demanded (and gotten) bigger, more intrusive formats. There are pop-ups, pop-unders, full-page ad splashes, ads that cover copy when you mouse over them, and ads that jump in size to cover lead paragraphs even when you don't.

I don't mind the occasional Interstitial (https://www.enliven.com). But exhaustion sets in. I'm playing “whack-a-mole” with all those pop-ups and pop-unders. I'm careful with my mouse lest some “button” ad grow unexpectedly into a page-filling monster. I'm learning how to start reading the 4th or 5th paragraph of a story, then the lead, when one of these ads covers the top of the screen.

I'm not alone. Programs like Pop-Up Killer and PopUp Stopper sell well, and they're reviewed avidly. Their features are compared as though they were graphics engines. Worse, these features are being incorporated in mainstream “must-have” products like Zonealarm Pro, a firewall. (All god's chillun must have firewalls.)

The content industry looks set to fight this war, threatening to withhold their wares from anyone who dares block ads. Intrusion is seen as the “price” of content.

But I'm shocked I have to say this, folks: Fighting your customers is not a good thing. If sites don't find a way out of this box, the business will be destroyed. Web content will become either non-profit or the exclusive property of the few who pay “market research” prices.

The only answer lies back at the top of this column. Targeting. Content must pull people down the sales funnel. Site managers must find ways to collect these names, measure their specific interest, and then sell them on to advertisers. If you're selling a sale, rather than a suspect, you must be selling something of value. If you know what buyers think, not just what the whole market thinks, you can sell that insight.

This is what the Internet can do, from a commercial standpoint. It's what it was designed to do.

So just do it.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dana Blankenhorn  (danablankenhorn@mindspring.com) is the author of the new book, The Blankenhorn Effect: How to Put Moore's Law to Work for You, available at Amazon.Com.