What Matters Online? Content, of Course

Like Print or TV, Websites Must Capture Consumers' Attention With Beautiful Images. Too Bad That Concept Still Escapes Marketers

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The internet is as important an invention as the printing press. It's in its infancy. It's unsettling. It's astounded us by reflecting back both our universality and our diversity.
They get it: An example of a publisher and an advertiser -- ZooZoom and Diesel -- that realize that brands are built online the same way they are offline: with a well-constructed format and great content.
They get it: An example of a publisher and an advertiser -- ZooZoom and Diesel -- that realize that brands are built online the same way they are offline: with a well-constructed format and great content.

We see the enormous, fantastic and unimaginable successes: YouTube couldn't possibly be worth $1.6 billion, could it? And we see the failures: How could doomed online fashion retailer Boo.com spend $120 million and end up with nothing? Already the internet is changing the way we do things and understand things. It is a platform for making, seeing and becoming involved in a whole range of human relationships we only suspect are possible. It's also a brave new world for marketers where a trackable, captive audience sitting 18 inches from a screen 10 hours a day is waiting to be sold to.

So far, it hasn't worked out as advertised. Don't believe those who say it has; web-wide average click-through rates of less than 1% speak of failure on a grand scale. Don't monkeys score higher than this on a multiple-choice questionnaire?

Editorial value, branding
Google, the most successful online advertising company, is the world's largest Yellow Pages. Great for finding plumbers! It's also great for finding discounted designer dresses, if you already want them. But what about adding editorial value, what about branding, how do people come to want these things in the first place? We all know why we need a plumber -- the floor is wet -- but our desire for a $10,000 dress is more complex and is built using far more sophisticated marketing techniques than the plumber uses. Perhaps that's why the high-value brands, fashion in particular, are in the main absent from the web. Some brands don't belong in banners.

Personally I blame Jerry in tech. First he designed the website without consulting Terry in media, and of course, it looked terrible. Then he started placing banners on the site without consulting Terry either. The click-throughs were terrible, but Jerry realized if the banner ad with terrible click-throughs was on every page in the site, the result would look more impressive. It did. This, I assume, is the success story that the tech industry then extended to the web as a whole. Terry tried to take control and fix the problem. He tried to talk media, not tech, but he lost his way. He could be heard muttering, "Advertising in new media works the same way as it does in old media: Quality brands need quality content to support their marketing effort, and quality advertising in a consonant environment will bring better results than a banner."

I have proof of this. The relatively small online fashion magazine, ZooZoom.com, which I publish with my partners, has an ad unit that can deliver click-throughs with single-day highs of 37%, first week of flight averages of 27% and two-month flight averages of 22%. Ironically, the ad that achieved this was placed by a brand that bought Boo.com's servers.

In case you don't know what we do: We publish edited, original and exclusive content aimed at a target group.

A well-constructed format, populated with great content, works well for an advertiser because it represents that advertiser's brand and connects with its target group.

Of course, this is not new. Condé Nast is making the argument that this is the foundation of print magazines with its "Point of Passion" campaign. It is.

Ask Jerry
But it is also the foundation for all advertising-supported publishing models: radio, TV, print magazines and the internet. So why is brand advertising on the internet so uninspiring in both its content and results? You'd better ask Jerry; he gave us the format we seem stuck with. Small text, small images, no space and page designs that satisfy the Yellow Pages aesthetic.
An ad for Guess on Interview's website.
An ad for Guess on Interview's website.

Marketing has not changed. The old rules apply. The environment they apply in is, however, more complex. I was taught that marketers should be looking for the correct marketing mix, the four P's: product, price, place and packaging. The internet presents an opportunity to have a different marketing mix for every consumer. What are brands doing with this opportunity? Hiding from it.

Marketers know a lot about the consumer, but the "place" and "packaging" environment has changed dramatically. How do you package an MP3, for example? I would suggest that the failure on a grand scale of internet advertising is because the brands and the marketers don't know the "places" they are marketing in and how to "package" their product in those places. I mean this literally, not metaphorically. I imagine most CMOs don't even know where their banner ads are appearing, let alone the audience that is seeing them or the content that surrounds them. Computers make this choice.

ZooZoom's click-throughs are evidence that brands should be focusing on the reduced cost of online marketing and its production as an opportunity to produce more variations of a marketing campaign, to place it in more places and to reach more people in more meaningful ways.

Little risk, big potential gain
To learn what works, brands must invest more in knowing the environments their target groups enjoy. They must understand the content in these environments, not just statistics about their use. Brands must invest more in production and evaluating what happened. It's relatively cheap to do so; mistakes are more easily forgiven because everyone sees the internet as an experiment, and the dividends are likely to be significant.

Considered steady strategic development in a medium that has already changed the nature of our relations and will continue to do so still seems rare. It's not "You are in danger if you don't" (although it may be) as much as "Why on earth are you missing such fine opportunities?" The Prius and a commitment to greener technology is a good example to consider. Toyota didn't become the world's largest car manufacturer by owning the lowest common denominator; it invested in an innovative and nonprofitable market that was obvious would become profitable.

But what do I know? I'm the little guy. I care more about the irony that tracks by groups like the Clash are being used to sell me cars when they were once the symbol of the decay of capitalism. It seems inevitable the brands will work it out; I just wonder which ones.
Mike Hartley is the creative director of ZooZoom.com. His work has been awarded an Interactive Design distinction by ID Magazine, and ZooZoom has received honors including two Webbys. Born in England, he is a partnet in McEye Media and lives and works in New York.
Mike Hartley is the creative director of ZooZoom.com. His work has been awarded an Interactive Design distinction by ID Magazine, and ZooZoom has received honors including two Webbys. Born in England, he is a partnet in McEye Media and lives and works in New York.
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