Get a response from online ads

Online advertising is a soft market at present and the number of click-throughs on banner commercials has always been low, but perhaps you shouldn't be looking for that type of response at all

When Marty Levin, executive vice president of Internet research firm Jupiter Media Metrix, gave a talk recently on the future for online advertising, he left more than a few pale faces in the audience. Levin reduced his predictions for revenues from the online advertising market this year from $7.3bn to $5.3bn.

The online advertising industry only has itself to blame; creating unrealistic expectations of advertising 'click-through' ratings - the number of Web surfers clicking on advertising banners - has led to unhappy customers. The percentage of surfers clicking on such ads has been around 0.5% or less, leading to wide-ranging disillusionment in the business.

Companies have often paid advertisers based on how many end-users click through to their sites, which is one of the reasons why so many websites have been irritatingly aggressive with their advertising. A common trick, for example, is to throw up unsolicited commercials in separate browser windows using Javascript when surfers first visit their sites, therefore forcing customers to notice them. Companies such as Tradedoubler pay website publishers to put links to its clients on their pages, and reimburse them on a click-through basis.

Monitoring our movements

Such services - two others are Doubleclick and Valueclick - work by recruiting many such Web publishers into a network of affiliate sites. When a person visits an advertiser's website using a link from an affiliate page, it's possible to collect data about their movements.

ValueClick's eTrax service, for example, allows advertisers to place monitoring tags at critical points on their Web sites, determining information such as which affiliate sites are generating the most actual sales as opposed to mere click-throughs. Such systems are probably the best way to gain clear, quantifiable feedback about the response to your online advertising.

Other techniques are now emerging, although their techniques are generating controversy among Internet users. Smart tags - a technology from Microsoft that would highlight key words on a Web page and offer a choice of sites to link to - were removed from the final version of Internet Explorer 6 after negative customer feedback.

Not to be deterred, a company called eZula is creating a similar system whereby links to its customers' commercial Web sites can be placed directly in the text of any Web page when it is delivered to your browser, even though the publisher of the page may not have put them there.

Nevertheless, many are now saying that companies looking for such quantifiable return on investments are missing the point. Instead, companies should focus on the branding aspects of online advertising, and shouldn't necessarily expect many people to click on the banners that they display. After all, you can't click on the side of a bus, and yet banner advertising on vehicles has been going on for decades. Simply getting your name out to more people should be enough, say new economy pundits, and click-throughs should be simply a bonus.

Others are taking this concept of branding still further, and eschewing banner advertisements altogether in favour of more stealthy marketing techniques. Individuals with a good understanding of your product and a lot of grass-roots influence are known in the trade as 'mavens' - and targeting them can yield great rewards. There are many enthusiast sites on the Internet, and finding two or three good ones in your product area with a large following can give you a great dissemination point for information about your products and services, as long as you respect the individual's independence. 

Economic backlash

The click-through online advertising market is unlikely to go away. Most technologies experience a period of sharp growth, before suffering a backlash, and then finding long-term equilibrium. The economic downturn has accentuated the backlash. While monitoring click-through responses should be on your agenda, it should be secondary to less tangible forms of online marketing. This may be a difficult pill for your financial and marketing directors to swallow, but it will be good medicine in the long run.

Dangers to the online advertiser

If you're considering a banner-based advertising campaign, beware. Gator, a Califorian software firm, produces a free 'helper' application for Internet users that carries out basic tasks for them, such as form filling and remembering passwords. CEO Jeff McFadden, however, admits that the program also uses pop-up technology to replace online advertisements on Web pages with alternative advertisements - from its own customers.

It's not just companies like this that are dangerous to your online advertising campaign, either. Programs and plug-ins are emerging that enable Web surfers to block out online advertisements altogether, and such facilities are starting to appear in big-name products. Norton Internet Security, a well-known Internet firewall and anti-virus package for home users, contains an advertisements blocking system.

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