Online Ads are Navigation

Open your mind for a minute.

What if what the media / agency complex has been telling you all along about online advertising is not really true.  What if Advertising  – from the end user (visitor) perspective – performs a fundamentally different job online than it does offline?  What if the entire game is different than you think it is?  Might that explain why it’s so difficult to get any agreement on the value of online advertising?

Please bear with me; see if this makes any sense to you.

Offline, it’s important that you remember an ad.  That’s because you are rarely in a position to take advantage of or act on the ad when you are exposed to it – unless you are sitting in front of a computer.  Awareness, Recall, all those nice measurements the offliners do are important for offline Advertising, because the job of offline Advertising is get you to remember it so you can Act on the Advertising when you are in a position to do so.

Online, you can immediately investigate the products or services advertised, get 3rd party opinions, and so forth.  You can convert Awareness to Intent and Desire in a matter of moments, if not take Action as well –  if you are interested in what is being Advertised.

The fundamental answer to every question you have about online advertising might be really simple, if you think this way:

Online Ads are Navigation

They are not Advertising, in the traditional sense of offline Advertising.

Content sources serve the role of traditional Advertising online.

Not the ad itself.

Online, the Web Site is the Ad.

Offline, Advertising sets up Awareness but it doesn’t have much to do with fulfilling Intent or Desire.  That’s why you need tremendous weight (GRP’s) with offline ads.  You have to pound messages into people’s heads so that when they are standing in the grocery aisle, or thinking about credit fraud, or whatever it is, they remember your offering.  “Ah”, you say.  “I’m Aware of a proposed solution to my problem.”  Now you can move down the road to Intent and Desire through examining the offerings, doing some research, asking friends or co-workers, etc.

If you are on the web and see an Ad, you have immediate access to “the answers” to any question you might have about the subject of the ad.  So the ad is just Navigation.  The Ad doesn’t have to be remembered, so is promptly forgotten.  If it’s relevant, it will be pursued.  If not, nothing.

If you think about it, this is the underlying reason why Frequency capping became popular in Display.  Online ads simply don’t carry any “weight” with them – if you’ve seen the ad 5x and you still don’t care, then you just don’t.  This is not true offline, because chances are you never had the opportunity to follow through with Intent and Desire like you can online.  So offline campaigns can run and run and still deliver incremental behavior, because there is such a lag in the Action phase.

Not so online.  If you are interested, you simply Navigate though the ad and it’s over.  There’s no reason to remember the ad.  If you do, that’s nice, but it doesn’t really matter.

And that’s why all the traditional measurements of offline advertising are meaningless online.  Because unlike any other Advertising out there, Online Ads are Navigation.

Stick with me for a story.

In the early days of ads on the web, click-through rates on Display ads were very high.  Display ads were pronounced to “work” and it was off to the races.

But here’s the thing.  This was before there was anything like a functional search engine.  So, ask yourself this question: Was the functional utility of this early display advertising for the user actually Advertising, or is it possible the true utility was Navigation?

In other words, the “value promise” of the ads was not the message of the ad as much as “Hey you, there’s a web site over here you might not know about”.  Recall, this was the age of “surfing” the Internet.  Discovery was the driver; people would click from one site to the other based on ads or links just to see what was out there.

Fast forward to the age of Search.  As search rises, click-through rates on display advertising begin to plummet.  And this should be no surprise, if online Ads are really Navigation.

A Search engine more closely aligns with the web medium where Navigation is a critical functionality.  Surfers found it much more rewarding to Search for what they were specifically interested in rather than “surfing” a random chain of sites.  It’s much more efficient, wastes less time, gets better results.

Later, you have the addition of Pay-Per-Click advertising, which you could argue is really not Advertising at all in the traditional sense; it’s Supplemental Navigation.  PPC ads say, “Here’s another site you might be interested in based on your search phrase“.  In that way, PPC ads are just like the early Display ads.  Except they provide more Value to the end user.  They work better.

If you think of Online Ads as Navigation rather than Advertising, does some of the conflicting information you have seen on the effectiveness of different channels, formats, and creatives become easier to understand?  Would some data help?

So, how can you act on this knowledge?

To me, this all means the most effective way to optimize Marketing Productivity is to think of different media not in terms of reaching different audiences, but in terms of stimulating different behaviors

This is the fundamental idea behind my Marketing Bands Model.

Let me know what you think.


One thought on “Online Ads are Navigation

  1. Hey Jim,
    Your post is simply superb. The way you have explained it with examples and also a story is great. It gives the reader a complete view of online and offline advertisements and its effects. The post was very interesting to read and very informative too. Now online advertisements are a easy way to reach a good number of customers with a negligible time. It is cost efficient and convenient. Please keep writing similar post in future. thanks for the post.

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