A judge at the 1997 Coalition for Advertising Supported Information & Entertainment awards competition (which selects outstanding examples of Internet advertising and marketer Web sites) compared the entries to the 1996 competition and said there had been "a quantum leap forward in terms of creativity, professionalism, strategy and particularly accountability."
Despite these gains, many advertisers remain reluctant to commit the kind of resources and money to interactive advertising that they allocate to more traditional media.
What's holding up the show? Perhaps the answer can be found in the reaction one advertiser friend of mine had to a speech delivered at an Internet conference by a keynoter who blamed advertisers for putting too much emphasis and money into their own Web sites.
This advertiser pointed out he believes in the power of the Web, but said there are serious impediments to increasing his Web advertising expenditure. Employing a variation of the catchphrase made popular in the Tom Cruise film "Jerry Maguire," my friend said, "Show me the measurement and show me the motion (as in bandwidth), then you'll be able to show me the masses, (as in lots of people). Then I will show you the money (as in advertising)."
He has a point. Several things need to happen before the Web can truly become a serious medium for advertising, transactions and customer service. Here are 10 places to start.
Easier access. The World Wide Web is the first new medium that is harder to use than the revolutionary media form that preceded it. It's a lot easier to turn on a TV set than operate a computer. If the cable TV industry is successful in developing Web access over cable lines (without the need of a telephone line), Web usage will accelerate because TV can then deliver the Web experience.
Less expensive. Here, too, the cable industry seems on the verge of making Web access inexpensive via its new set-top technology linked into head-end services. Worldgate Technology Systems would create $5 per month access with no investment in hardware. This compares to Web TV, which requires several hundred dollars for the hardware and $20 per month Internet service provider charges. I am not making a value judgment as to which is better, but the Worldgate system is clearly cheaper and lowers a cost barrier to using the Web.
Faster searches. Browsers and search engines simplify the search task but, with 3 million Web sites out there, it's still much too hard for users to find exactly what they want when they want it. Push technology isn't the solution because it clogs the hard drive and is not a real-time experience. Every other medium relies on programming guides or tables of contents to make searching easy. The Web isn't there yet.
Increased ad visibility. This is the first medium where the first ads to appear are short, not long. In TV's early days, spots were :90s and :60s, and later made available in shorter length. Newspapers and magazines started out selling page units; partials came later. Web ads today utilizing an entire computer screen are few and far between. Most research indicates that users of commercial Web sites are not put off by interstitial pages. Advertisers might make greater use of the medium when they can take advantage of the full computer screen.
Reliable measurement. The lack of easy and reliable measurement, especially when compared to other media, continues to scare advertisers away from the Web. The new technology of measuring cached impressions is a step in the right direction. But there are still too many competing techniques. As a result, advertisers who need to know how many eyeballs are actually seeing their ads remain skeptical.
Transaction security. Major progress is being made in this area. If the new Secure Electronic Transaction technology catches on, more customers will be willing to use their credit cards to make purchases on the Web.
Convenience shopping. Many people will always want to experience the theater of certain kinds of shopping, but the proliferation of catalog sales indicates that more and more consumers value their time highly. However, the disintermediation offered by catalog sales won't happen big time on the Web until bandwidth allows Web catalogs to offer full-motion presentation and virtual shopping. A good example is Ticketmaster's ability to show the ticket buyer the actual view from a seat in any venue.
Discount shopping. The Web needs to incentivize shoppers by offering more savings. Early examples of Web-enabled savings can be found by bibliophiles (at Amazon.com) and by oenophiles (at VirtualVineyards.
com) but more are needed. Another good example is CUC's deal with America Online to give AOL users an opportunity to save on the vast number of items on CUC's database.
Customer service. Customer service is a high priority with many companies, and the smart ones are allowing customer frustration (as well as customer exaltation) to be vented on the Web. More should follow suit.
Privacy. Web users clamor for reasonable privacy. Guidelines offered by CASIE, the Children's Advertising Review Unit of the Council of Better Business Bureaus and the Direct Marketing Association recognize this. Advertisers and agencies need to comply with these guidelines because Web users want them, and so does the federal government.
The Web is a marvelous and exciting new medium that offers tremendous potential to marketers and agencies. But if we don't recognize the need to make it more user-friendly, we will be in the same predicament encountered by the cynical newspaperman H.L. Mencken in his consideration of humanitarianism.
The only problem with humanitarianism, he observed, is that it has never been tried. We can't let that happen to the Web.
Mr. Donahue is exec VP of the American Association of Advertising Agencies and co-executive director of CASIE, a joint project of the Four A's and the Association of National Advertisers.