Online, the Web Site is the Ad

A list of the posts in this series on Brand Management is here.

OK, so hopefully we know the difference between a Brand in the classic sense and today’s notion of Branding.  I’m going to resist going into the history of Brand Management here because I think many people in this medium simply don’t think the past has any lessons to offer, you know, “it’s different this time“.  My experience has been that the channels and the tools may change, but the basic psychology driving human behavior is remarkably resistant to change.

So, instead of a long (and probably boring to most) review, let’s go ahead and just stipulate a couple of things from history to get started:

1.  When mass media came on the scene, it was possible for the first time to market a product nationwide instead of market by market against the local offerings.  The biggest problem you face doing this is the chatter about the local offering – it is made in town, by a local person, and all the local people use it.  There is history – “my mother used it, her other used it”, etc.  In other words, Word of Mouth.  The mainstream concept of “Brand” was created to address this problem – namely, to create the impression of a premium product superior to the local one you could sell for a higher price than the local offering based on creating aspirational images of the product in people’s minds.  “Housewives who really care about their families buy only the purest and most hygienic bathroom tissue”, etc.  These aspirational images created Intent (or Interest and Desire, if you prefer the AIDA-S model).

2.  Brands worked, perhaps largely because though the advertising might imply that “everybody who is anybody uses Brand X”, there was really no check or balance on this notion.  People simply couldn’t communicate frictionlessly enough to handle any kind of “fact checking”, nor did they really want to.  Sure, you could ask the neighbor over the fence how he liked his new Ford, but that was about it.  Bathroom tissue?  Not.  Word of mouth was weak and very localized – unlike the mass media Brands concept.  In fact, you might not even like the product, but if there were enough really cool ads running on TV about the Ford, your neighbor would be impressed you owned one, and that was enough for you!

So then what happened?  We started to get “mass media word of mouth” through the web catching up with the mass media of the Brands, and now you’ve got a problem.  There can be too many people counteracting the Brand message if it is not honest.  Purely aspirational messages can be deflected or called on the carpet.  Consumers can ask peers if “everybody” is using Glade plug-ins or not, and they can directly ascertain what their “risk” is to not provide a “fragrance greeting in every room” based on the experience of others (I’m not picking on Glade here, just an example).  Consumers can mentally and somewhat empirically challenge the idea of whether having Glade plug-ins make life “better” in some way.  They can even find out if the product is a fire hazard.

All this communication about products on the web fundamentally changes the original Brand model, doesn’t it?  When you can do your own fact-checking on any ad or Brand statement in just a few seconds?

You can’t simply trot out aspirational messages anymore or make claims about superior quality without running the risk of getting into Brand trouble.  In other words, the Advertising itself has been stripped of the “blind aspirational” role – and with this removal, so goes the Intent portion of the Advertising equation.  The Aspirational stuff, and with it the generation of Intent (Interest, Desire), has moved to the web.

If people want to find out if the Brand promises are true, they go to the web.  Hopefully, the company has something online that convinces people the Brand promise is true, and that is where Aspiration and Intent then kick in.  After the web site experience.  Intent leads to trial, and then the aspirational stuff is fed back to the web by consumers who have had a positive experience with the product.  Then you have Brand.

Brand is now the experience, the trial, the usage, the service.  Brand now requires a peer-confirmed aspirational message.

Without the aspirational role now handled by the web, mass advertising is left with the Awareness job – a job it actually does quite well, thank you.  In fact, these ads can drive negative Intent, as the Awareness drives discovery of the underlying negative chatter.  If you own a Ford and think it sucks, and everybody on the web says it sucks too, then it sucks.  Doesn’t matter what the Brand ads say.

Some folks are taking advantage of this new mixed media model.  For example, you can go on the web and tell people yourself how cool your new Ford Fusion is.  Have you heard of the Ford Fusion?  Seen the mass media ads that encourage you to go on the web and check out “user reviews”? (Marketing / IT folks, can we find a better word than “user” for this context, please?  How about Owner?  Member?)  This is mass media doing what mass media is good at – awareness – and the web doing what online is good at – Interaction, Intent, Brand.  Each media taking on the task it is best at within an integrated campaign.  Mass media generates Awareness through real “weight”, the web site generating Intent through positive Brand interaction.  Intent leading to trial.  Trial leading to Brand.

Now, let me take a moment to specify that “Brand interaction” at the web site is not playing some goofy game on the Brand’s web site where “exposure to the Brand name” is the end goal.  That’s the Awareness thing again.  That’s the Brand-ing folks again.  “Exposure” is not the function of the web site in this model.  Intent (Interest, Desire) is the function of the web site, the aspirational confirmations, the peer reviews, the decision to take a test drive.

There is also a less traditional but no less important Brand role the web site plays under this model, particularly in services.  Mass media generates the Awareness, prospects go to web site, the web site sucks.  Can’t find any mention of the content from the mass media on the home page, there is no scent.  Can’t use the navigation to find any reference to the mass media campaign, and the on-site search can’t find the campaign either.  No store locator.  Can’t figure out how to open the high interest checking account or request more information.  Visit Done, Brand = Bad.

If Intent is generated on the web site, the web site must be up for the job in more ways than one.

So, where does that leave our friend the Banner?  As I said,

I would stop trying to turn the banners themselves into ”mass media”; stop worrying about awareness and intent and all that stuff based on the Banner alone.  Set the Banners in underneath the mass media campaign as Bridge Media, a “reminder” media reflecting the mass campaign taking folks directly to where you want them to go on the web site or microsite.  And then look at your awareness and intent – not based on the Banners, but on the interaction of visitors with the banners and the web site as a package.  This would be a new media approach to the new media, as opposed to trying to force the old display model into new media.

In simple terms, for online, the web site is the ad, not the Display unit or even the Search unit.  The Brand interaction and resulting “Brand Proof” happens at the web site.  And that is where you should do your measurement, not on the transitional or Bridge Media leading to the web site.

OK, there’s your model.  Let’s go back to our three media quotes that kicked this sequence off:

1.  “The net is not a branding tool or a quick-reach vehicle, but when used in conjunction with other media, it helps to seal the deal with the consumer.” – Bill McOwen at MPG, the media buying unit of the mega-agency HAVAS, as reported in the Wall Street Journal (subscription may be required).

My take: Drive authentic Brand interaction and confirm aspirational messages – “seal the deal” – on the web site.

2.  “I don’t think banner ads are a total waste of money, but they’re not very effective”. – Trond Riiber Knudsen, Senior Vice President of Strategic Marketing at Nokia, as reported in the McKinsey Quarterly.

My take: Forget trying to use Banners to generate awareness, unless you are talking about micro-segmentation of some kind, which, let’s face it, will be “not very effective”.  If you’re going micro, use Search.

3.  (bold emphasis mine) “…banner ads may provide a valuable function in fostering familiarity even if those that view them never click through to the source of the ads. The downside for advertisers is that any evaluation of the positive impressions that this familiarity creates, even one based on false premises, is enough to make those positive feelings vanish.  This suggests that familiarity-based advertising may work best for impulse buys, where more detailed evaluations aren’t likely to occur.” – Journal of Consumer Research, as reported here.

My take:  Forget using Banners to generate Awareness or Intent – it doesn’t really happen anyway.

So, is executing against this model very hard?  I mean, other than the politics of which agency gets to “run” the campaign and which silo approves what creative and so forth.  That’s a mess, but not strictly a Marketing problem, it’s an Organizational / Vendor issue.  I would ask any agency folks in the middle of this to again, simply look at what is happening around you.

Can we be very far away from a time when the interactive agency makes a legitimate pitch to be in charge of the TV for these campaigns?  After all, the web site is where the Brand action is.  TV – just Awareness, you know.  No “Branding” really going on there.  How about some of the direct agencies getting into the Brand game?  After all, they understand persuasion, the behavioral linkages required between the media, and are for the most part media agnostic, generally choosing the most efficient way to get the job done.  Are you direct folks up for some Brand work?

Stir in a little Google / DoubleClick, a little MSN / aQuantive, plus some Yahoo / Real Media, and I think you just might have the match needed to light this new media Advertising model on fire.  When they (especially Google) start testing the true economic value of Display versus Search, and as the Display media moves more towards an auction model, the Brand measurement focus will shift to the web site itself, and away from the Bridge Media generating the visit.  As a bonus, this united approach really gets rid of the whole “view-through” measurement problem since the metrics that matter are measured at the site – the “true origin” of the visit becomes much less important.

Agencies, get rid of the old media Display model in the new media.  You’ve had a decade plus to make it work.

The web site experience is the Impression, folks.  Let’s measure the value of the media based on the behavior of the audience, OK?

The next post in this series is here.

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One thought on “Online, the Web Site is the Ad

  1. I’m new in the internet business field. I’m skilled in the graphics side, but I need info to learn about this business. I was going through your post and got a few pointers.

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