When most people think about advertising, they think about memorable creative – tag lines that become household words (“Wazzup” and “Where’s the beef”) and beautiful or inspiring imagery (glamorous fashion spreads or sleek cars on coastal highways).
While great creative makes advertising seem like entertainment, the business problem has been quantifying the buzz factor. It’s never been entirely clear that even the most popular and talked-about ads boost the bottom line. Hence, the ancient joke that everybody knows half of all ad budgets are wasted, but nobody knows which half.
The Web is changing all this. Companies can now measure precisely the value they realize from online ad investments, including both search and display. But, interestingly, the value of the creative is under scrutiny today. Indeed, many companies are asking if creative matters at all on the Web.
Consider Google AdWords, perhaps the most successful type of advertising on the Web. Obviously, no one would mistake these humble links listed adjacent to search results for “I’d like to teach the world to sing” or “tastes great, less filling.”
But they work, which is why world-renowned brands use them. Google “overnight shipping,” “diet soda,” “cars” or any type of ailment treatable with pharmaceuticals and you’ll see plenty of familiar names.
So is creative still relevant? We’re not willing to say it’s irrelevant, but the landscape is fundamentally changed, and changed forever. And not just for creative directors, but also for media buyers.
There’s a real risk that traditional ad agencies will become irrelevant if they continue to mimic tired brand-building solutions from other channels. For instance, advertisers bombarding users with embedded Flash-based spots are unlikely to win over online consumers.
Targeted couponing, recommendation-based offers or referral-based campaigns within communities are more likely to deliver results because they take advantage of the Web’s native strengths. Maybe user-generated viral campaigns on YouTube and Twitter will emerge as the killer online advertising app.
We think great online creative will emerge someday, but we just don’t know yet what it will look like. Certainly, we’re learning more all the time. For instance, Adweek reports that new research shows smaller, less intrusive display ads work harder than bigger, more expensive ads (think huge skyscrapers and leader-board or header ads) when it comes to traditional branding metrics.
This seems fairly obvious, since many users find big ads to be obtrusive and annoying — not exactly desirable brand attributes. The bigger question is just how effective any pure brand advertising will work on the user-controlled Web. Other studies have shown the impact of ad position on conversion and of search traffic on brand awareness.
There’s a lot to learn, but a strong analytics allows you to apply learnings productively and profitably, through cycles of testing, optimization and tracking. Anybody willing to collect and analyze data can learn a lot about what users want and do online.
There is one important similarity between online and traditional advertising: creative must follow a well conceived strategy. It’s worth investing time in really understanding your online opportunity. Put simply, how exactly will your online advertising move you closer to your core objectives? What’s the role of your Web site, or other online operations? Are they meant merely to build a brand and provide basic information, or can they drive sales and attract new customers?
Looking ahead, the question of whether creative matters will stick with us as more advertising dollars are spent on mobile campaigns. The good news is that the answers we find now will help us solve those mobile challenges later.
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