Words and Pictures

with Elizabeth Walton

The hard sell on the soft line

Discussing the hard sell on the soft space of the internet, in The Weekend Australian, with Elizabeth Walton…

Advertising is a finicky industry. Even the best in the business, such as internationally renowned advertising guru David Ogilvy, can sometimes miss the mark.

The Ford Motor Company, he says, once tested a campaign by placing advertisements in every second copy of Readers’ Digest. Market analysis later revealed the negative impact of the campaign: the group of readers who had not received the ads bought more Fords than those who had seen the campaign.

In big business, lessons like that are indeed hard learned. To the emerging industry of online advertising, they’re lessons web designers are forced to learn on the fly.

The success of the advertising industry pivots on the subtle point of knowing when to observe the hard and fast rules and when to take a chance and break them. When it works, the formula is extremely powerful. Just think of the slogan “Which Bank?” The Commonwealth Bank’s campaign was so strong that the phrase has virtually become a rhetorical question. Other mass media slogans, such as “I feel like a Tooheys” and “Good on ya, Mum!” are so memorable that their jingles still ring long after the campaign ends.

All are clever ads aimed at the heartland of middle Australia, an audience that laps up the psychological massaging and soft urban images of mass broadcast advertising. The difference with online advertising is that there is no heartland. The audience is exploring the information superhighway, a world in which a fickle mouse-click triumphs over even the brightest advertising campaign.

Never again, so the promise of this new territory goes, will the target audience consume advertising passively. Web marketing – with the possible exception of “banner ads” – is accessed because the used has chosen to view it.

And they’ve chosen it for a reason – they want something more than what they find in television, radio, and print advertising. They want to do things. They want to make bookings, check prices on consumer goods, register their point of view, or carry out banking transactions. So how do the tricks of the advertising trade translate to the new medium? The leading innovators in this emerging field are unanimous: they don’t.

“Many a website fails because it is designed by someone who has a great deal of talent working in print,” says Andrew Kloster, director Sydney-based multimedia advertising agency NewMedia. “Throw a print designer in front of a project for screen and it’s a catastrophe. When it comes to the web, all mass marketing principles must be disregarded. Here you are working with a one-on-one market. You can’t just cast a net and hope for the best.”

Elizabeth Walton talks to Gary Caganoff about online advertising in The Weekend Australian

Perhaps it is a measure of their sudden uncertainty that each of the mainstream major advertising agencies contacted for this story declined to comment on their multimedia strategies. Dale McCarthy of interactive advertising agency X M Harrow says the reason traditional agencies are shy in coming forward about their explorations into the new market is that they’re simply not working in this genre yet.

“The net is still a niche market,” she explains. “Traditional advertising agencies like George Patterson and The Campaign Palace use X M Harrow as interactive media specialists in print or TV.”

McCarthy, whose agency boasts clients such as Dymocks, AGL, Coca Cola adv Unilever, says the key to interactive advertising lies in improving the “direct experience” the consumer has with a product – as opposed to the “indirect experience” perused by traditional media. “You have to give the Internet some relevance – like offering people some interaction with your brand if you want them to come to you,” she says.

It’s an approach X M Harrow used in creating the Twisties internet campaign, which featured online games that were directly targeted towards Twisties’ young, male market. The average visit to the site lasted 18 minutes. “You’re never going to get 18 minutes of interaction with a print or TV ad,” says McCarthy.

Fair enough. But was the Twisties campaign merely preaching to the converted? McCarthy says yes – but that always was a significant strategy in the advertising game. “It’s the 80/20 rule,” she says. “Twenty percent of your customers represent 80 percent of your revenue base, so maintaining their loyalty costs five times as much as it costs to generate a new customer.”

The Twisties campaign targeted a techno-friendly sector whose expectations of online experiences are extremely high. The target audience called for highly engaging material that could keep them stimulated for long visits to the site.

Not all online punters fall into the same category. “There’s nothing worse than a potential client being alienated by technology they don’t understand,” says director of Kaganovich Productions, Gary Caganoff. The best thing about internet marketing, Caganoff says, is that web advertising is accessible for companies that would never be able to afford to take out an ad in a national newspaper or on TV.

“The web is such a brilliant grass-roots tool. There’s room for everyone. And it’s relatively inexpensive to get your information up there for the whole world to see.”

Caganoff’s own website features streaming video snippets of corporate campaigns the agency has produced. The site takes advantage of low-tech yet surprisingly effective campaigns which can be launched on the net. His clients are mainly activist groups in search of online advertising that is not only cheap, but also measures up to a strict charter of social justice and broader ethical issues. They are also mindful of netiquette – like staying out of your face, and respecting their target audience’s right to choose to visit a site, with little – if any – persuasion.

At the opposite extreme of the money-to-burn realm of online advertising are Spike’s media client’s: Toyota, Greater Union Cinemas, Time magazine: the list of the big guys Spike has pinned is impressive.

“The average budget of Spike’s Australian clients is in excess of $250,000 per annum,” says director of Spike, Chris O’Hanlon. “A few have budgets exceeding $750,000. But that figure jumps to more than $10 million a year for our US clients.”

He estimates that the online advertising budget in the US will soo reach $4.5 billion – and online direct marketing expenditure will exceed $600 million. He says some online advertisers are achieving a return on investment figures in excess of an astonishing 1000 percent.

“Sites which are transactional, especially in hot spaces such as travel, ticketing, wines, books and records are generating turnovers in six and seven  figures a month – even in the small Australian market.”

It may only be a small target audience receiving a cost-concentrated narrowcast message, but increasing success stories are bound to send new media advertising out to proclaim “I feel like a Tooheys” – even if it is an onld media war cry. The only question campaigns with such a high level of success leave unanswered, it seems, is which banks should the profits be deposited into.

The trade may be a changing, but the tricks are being mastered quickly enough.

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