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The exclusive online film series, "The Hire," at BMW Films.com was last year's advertising event. Winner of a Cannes Grand Prix and Best of Show at One Show, "The Hire" proved once and for all that, as a digital medium, the Web's versatility lends itself to pioneering advertising initiatives.

After years of fumbling in the dark, marketers are finally beginning to understand how people use the Internet and are creating programs that synch up with their online habits. "The Hire" is just one example of new tactics now being employed in an effort to reach people beyond the simple message-based banner.

For online advertising to succeed, it must either present an experience that people will want to spend time with or a service that people can use.

The Ill-Begotten Banner

It's amazing the banner has survived as long as it has. A sensation when first launched in 1996, it has been increasingly ignored ever since. Industry-wide overall click-through rates have plunged to around 0.3% and are getting lower every year.

Noble efforts to boost performance by developing more intrusive efforts such as super-size banners (leaderboards, skyscrapers, etc.), pop-ups, pop-unders, page takeovers and the like may be attention-grabbing but have failed to substantially improve overall click-through rates.

Furthermore, too many banner ads on a site can turn off potential visitors. According to eMarketer, 68% of Internet users think two ad units per page is too much, and 36% say they will leave a site if it has too many ads. With more Internet service providers blocking pop-up ads, the end of intrusive advertising could very well be drawing near.

The demise of the message-driven banner is not completely unexpected because it ignores how people use the Internet. Darting from place to place in single-minded pursuit of a task (information, shopping) or a diversion (music, games, instant messages), Web surfers may see a flashy animated banner out of the corner of their eye, but generally don't linger the five/six seconds it takes for animation to deliver its message.

Imagine how successful highway billboards would be if cars could go 900 miles per hour. That's how fast people move on the Internet.

However, with the Internet having grown from five million users to an estimated 500 million since 1995, it is a medium marketers cannot afford to ignore. But if banners and their offspring are not the answer, then what is?

Give the People What They Want

With people either on the Internet to be entertained or to accomplish a task, the only way marketers can communicate with them is by addressing their needs.

Three new trends have emerged to replace the banner that make more sense for reaching people online: 1) Creating compelling experiences 2) Offering them some kind of tool or utility 3) Allowing them to indicate what they want to hear about--a new-fangled form of pull marketing.

1. Compelling Experiences.

For "The Hire," people came in droves to see what was essentially a commercial because they knew they were going to receive first-class entertainment from A-list directors like John Frankenheimer and John Woo. According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, BMWFilms.com has logged over 13 million film views and 2 million registrants, with 1.2 million opting in to receive more information from BMW via e-mail.

But top Hollywood talent is not necessary to draw people in. In one of the online executions for the Blue Man Group that promoted Pentium 4 processors in 2001, people could make music using their one-of-a-kind funky instruments.

For the Pentium 4 Alien campaign, basketball fans could make monster dunks, alien-style. By giving the people the opportunity to interact with the brand icons in a fun way rather than just messaging them, we achieved results well above industry standard.

2. Tools and Utility.

A lot of companies already offer tools on their Web sites – banks with financial management tools, airlines with reservation tools, automakers with car customization tools and clothes companies with virtual models customers can create to buy custom-fit clothes.

In the online world, the most effective advertising is that which actually provides a service to potential customers. By distributing these tools over the Web to sites where customers are most likely to be researching or shopping for an item, a company offers something much more valuable than an intrusive message.

Kraft was spending millions on Internet ads but not getting the results it hoped for. Rather than relying on people coming directly to the Kraft Web site, the agency created a Kraft Recipe Finder and placed it on different sites where time-starved mothers were likely to be looking for ideas for that night's dinner. Effectiveness soared as Kraft's advertising budget was reduced.

3. New-Fangled Pull Marketing.

Remember "Pull Marketing?" It's back, but finally in a form that makes sense.

For those who missed it the first time, "pull marketing" refers to customers requesting marketing information from marketers rather than marketers trying to "push" it to them via methods like banner ads. All leading search engines now offer keyword search services. When visitors enter a search request, a page is returned with not only Web matches for that search but also "sponsor matches" relevant to their search. While usually clearly identified as sponsored listings, they are laid out in HTML exactly like the Web matches so they are far less intrusive than pop-ups and banner ads, and can actually help people find what they're looking for.

Overture reports a 40%-plus ROI for these keyword search offerings, while Google claims clients are able to convert visitors to buyers 50% more frequently than with traditional media buys.

Another method of pull marketing is having customers opt-in to receive more information about a company's products, usually while doing something else like registering on a site or signing up for a newsletter. Using this method on a recent Sprint PCS campaign, we had 150,000 people sign up to receive more information about the latest services plans--at a cost of $1 per acquisition.

It's taken some time, but marketers have finally figured out how to properly advertise in an interactive medium--simply give the people something they want to interact with. Continue bombarding them with intrusive banner ads and pop-ups, and you'll drive them off faster than a getaway scene on BMWFilms.com.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alex Hendler Alex Hendler (ahendler@modemmedia.com) is a Creative Director at Modem Media in San Francisco, an interactive marketing firm whose clients include Delta, Kraft, Michelin, and Sprint.