Old Wisdom for New Media
by Ken Goldstein
Brandweek, May 5, 2008
WHILE updating my profile on a certain social-networking site recently, I received a tower ad for a brand of acne medication. Truth be told, I was flattered. I mean, the last time I really had to worry about my skin breaking out was…
Well, let’s just say it was a while ago.
So, to the makers of the nifty benzoyl peroxide cream, thanks. And thanks, too, for getting me thinking. Because when it comes to the integration of technology, programming and advertising, this complex machinery clearly broke down in my case. Nobody doubts that social networks and video-distribution sites are critical marketing tools — they’ve got tens of millions of users, nearly half of whom are over 35 and well past the zit zone — but many of them have yet to target effectively. They still don’t allow advertisers to deliver relevant content that creates emotional resonance.
Is that a shortcoming? Yes. Does it surprise me? No. The lag time between the invention of a technology and the perfection of its market applications is well documented. For example, radio technology emerged as early as 1895, but the first on-air commercial didn’t bounce off the ionosphere until 1922 (it was a spokesman for New York City’s Queensboro Corp. lauding new cooperative apartments in a lush, far-off paradise called Queens). America had an early version of television back in 1927, but nobody saw a TV spot until 1941, when Bulova bought a 20-second ad to open a Dodgers-Phillies game.
Even after the development of on-air advertising, it took still longer for our marketing ancestors to awaken to specific audience targeting — specifically, using women in the TV studio to speak to women at home in the suburbs. Betty Furness was advertising’s first celebrity endorser, delivering her inaugural pitch for Westinghouse appliances in 1949. Procter & Gamble created the daytime TV serial drama in 1950 to sell cleaning products to women. Its series (called The First Hundred Years) lasted only two seasons; the name it coined–soap opera–lives on.
And so, much as it took early sponsors time to realize their era’s new media potential; today’s marketers are traveling the same learning curve. In our digital age, advertising continues to focus on reach, efficiency and relevance — but Web-based advertising relies disproportionately on unimaginative spot and text ads that have changed little since Hotwire introduced banner ads in 1994.
Indeed, marketers have begun to recognize that ads on social networking sites yield click-through rates as low as 4 in 10,000, while the click-through rate for all ads is 20 in 10,000. When social-networking sites have a 5-to-1 disparity in click-through, it’s clearly time to better capitalize on today’s digital innovations.
The basic truth revealed by the Queensboro co-op apartment radio spot still applies. When advertising is part of the story (when you see the Lipstick Jungle ad on iVillage.com or a Ross-Simons promotion within a “Cart Me Away” game on my company’s site, shop.com) it defines the difference between advertising that people embrace and advertising people avoid. Focused Web sites with a loyal audience controlling discretionary dollars still make the most efficient media buys when marketing content is entertaining rather than intrusive. The cable TV industry taught the networks a great lesson on this point; my sense is digital media are on the verge of learning similar lessons.
Yes, technology can help an advertiser reach the rich audience, but whether you’re selling luxury real estate or acne cream, it’s still the audience — its attention span and the connections it makes with content — that matters most. I like online social networks, but just because they pull down big numbers doesn’t mean they can pull off a sale. Getting great products in front of great customers is both art and science; let’s embrace the art and science (and mostly the customers) and worry less about so-called “total media solutions” from pundits who have never made a sales call. Maybe then we can have some fun really inventing that fabled digital media future.
PostScript for CIR blog post:
The fun of media is that it is equal parts art and science. The challenge of media is whichever of those two sides of the brain is not your strong suit. That’s why it takes a (small) village to get it right, no one has the whole story, but without the whole story, it usually is not a very good story.
History has a way of solving these problems, but it takes time, and it takes casualties. Just because you can think it up and do it doesn’t mean it will work; but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try everything and respond to the feedback you get — quickly, honestly, and passionately.