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05/11/2009 The Problem with Online Advertising

The problem with online advertising is that it’s not print, radio, or TV. If it were, we’d know what to do with it to make it work. We’ve tried the print model, placing small space ads throughout the layout, and while some say it does work, most say it doesn’t. Even if we have tried making those ads more interactive.

We’re about to start trying the TV model. Yes, interstitials have been around for a while, but now we’re about to see a new initiative: Full page ads with 15 or 30 second TV spots in between your Web pages. We should expect this to work as well, or even less so, than the newspaper model. Why?

"It's not user initiated, but it's really clean and high quality," says Riley McDonough of Thomson Reuters. If advertisers think Web users don’t want control but want high, clean quality, then they’ve been sleeping on the job for the past dozen or so years.

1936FibberMcGeeAndMollyTop We’ll probably see the old radio model pop up again, even before this new/old TV model fails. Maybe your parents or grandparents remember how brands sponsored and owned radio shows in the 30s. We’re already hearing ideas of content distribution and sponsorship, even if we haven’t seen brands own sites or site sections in a meaningful way.

While it’s not wrong to try old models on new ones when they arrive, the success of the old models rested on the fact that they adapted from one to the other. We’re impatient to see that new model on the Web, which seems to confound everyone. Well, not everyone: it hasn’t confounded Google because they’ve built an AdWords model on what makes the Web great, instead of trying to change it.

In Paco Underhill’s classic “Why We Buy” he explained how in-store merchandisers sought to slow down shoppers. If they could break shoppers’ speed and rhythm, they could sell them more. All traditional advertising does the same thing: it seeks to interrupt someone, whether they’re listening to the radio, reading the paper or watching TV. It works since none of these media has speed as a key benefit.

But on the Web, speed is a key benefit. If you slow someone down and take away control, they hate it. That’s part of Google’s brilliance. Rather than slow you down, paid search actually speeds you up! A huge challenge with the Web is actually finding what you want. Paid search seems to serve the opposite of Underhill’s slow-down: it saves you lots of time while directing you to relevant content.

Visual online advertising will have to figure out a way to do the same. Contextual advertising seems to hold promise, but it’s not enough. I’d like to see a re-imagining of the Web page itself. Right now it’s too reminiscent of print with its advertising spaces. I’d also like to see (as I’ve noted here before) a ranking system that lets people tell when to stop showing ads or when they like them. 

We might even want to think about not even showing ads until someone has clicked on a search ad or Twitter link, which makes the ad less a 30 second spot and more like a targeted microsite posing as a rich media banner posing.

And none of this may be enough. We have to start completely re-imagining advertising for this media by throwing off the shackles or our old media habits.

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