Mixed Messages

After spam, pop-ups and spyware may be the most hated Web advertising tools. Today I will suggest that we’ll never be able to cram enough advertising through viewers’ eyeballs while they’re online and that we ought to look at mixed-media advertising packages as a way to underwrite new media publishing costs. Antipathy to pop-ups and spyware was a theme of Bill Gates’ presentation at the recent RSA Conference. “The first thing we see here are pop-ups telling me I can win big, telling me my credit score, and lose 50 pounds. The next thing we see here is a home page I don’t recognize. I have reason to believe that my home page has been hijacked,” said Zachary Gutt, the Microsoft product manager who assisted Gates during the talk. Others can debate whether MSFT is doing too little or enough in this regard. My point is that advertising will continue to find ways to intrude on our consciousness because that is its job. Publishers, on the other hand, though dependent on ad sales and eager to please both their salesforces and their customers, must consider whether too much distraction will harm their readability.Consider what Web design guru Jakob Nielsen said in a 1999 interview : “Web advertising is doomed, not because of poor banners, but because it is a fundamental mismatch with the way people use the Web. Users go online to get things done, to find something, to read something. Whatever: the key fact is that they are goal-driven. They are not going to take the time to click elsewhere.”

The remark is dated but our own experiences as Web users should tell us that the observation remains sound. More importantly, the most successful Web advertising product being deployed today are those little text ads that come up on search pages. Nielsen speculates this may be a temporary artifact of their novelty. I don’t know.

My gut tells me the only useful ad is one that shows a consumer something of interest — which means contextual placement will be a key technology going forward.

But I think perhaps we ought to look backwards as well, to the older technology of direct mail. In brief, what if we imagine that Web publishing is a vehicle for reader acquisition, interaction and, yes, information delivery. But not necessarily our total advertising support platform. Instead, what if we ask readers for their real world addresses and send them periodic print an/or multimedia advertorials.

I can’t take much more time this morning to develop what is, admittedly just a thought. The baby just woke up and she demands (and deserves) attention. But this tactic should work for big-ticket items like cars and TVs, which have features people like to study and compare. As chance would have it, the Center for Media Research just put out a brief on automotive direct mail that suggests, among other things, that young consumers in particular are likely to respond to a direct mail solicitation by visiting the vendor’s website. Could Web publishers get paid to reverse the trick and get viewers to click on the box that causes the glossy brochure to be sent to them at home?

Tom Abate
“Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media.”