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Standards required to make next leap

By Published on .

Internet standards.

Talk about two words that don't fit together. Perhaps the only more oxymoronic phrase being floated these days is Dole presidency.

But the lack of Internet standards is currently the single greatest impediment to the Web's em-ergence as a viable long-term advertising medium.

The void impacts everything from definitions to audience measurement to ad sizes and pricing, allowing buyers of advertising and critics of new media to continue to underestimate the impact and power of the Internet as a marketing tool.

And while to scoff at the Internet is ultimately short-sighted, the medium's proponents must assume responsibility for taking the Net to the next level, for forcing skeptics to take it seriously, for proving that even when all the hype is cleared from the Internet, there is a there there after all.

LACK OF STANDARDS A PROBLEM

In Advertising Age's recent special report on Media Mavens, John Nardone of Modem Media talked about how the lack of standards is hurting the Internet and making it increasingly difficult to prove the value of the Web to marketers.

Although his job is to sell clients on the power of the Web, Mr. Nardone admitted "there ain't one shred of empirical evidence to support the contention" that the Web is as effective as traditional media in meeting marketing objectives.

True, we've come a long way from the days when people thought hits were a meaningful measure of site traffic. But marketers still don't have a way to compare today's more sophisticated audience measurement figures with the results of their traditional media programs.

WHAT PRICE FOR A VISIT?

Farris Khan, interactive marketing coordinator for General Motors Corp.'s Saturn division, recently asked, "What does it mean when 1,000 people visit your site? Is it better or worse than 100,000 people seeing your TV commercial?"

A good question for which there is no good answer.

In addition to the lack of Internet standards, there's an absence of meaningful benchmarks. The Wall Street Journal recently revealed that it converted 30,000 online users to paid subscriptions in its first month of trying to do so. Is that a good number for a newspaper that sells more than 1.8 million copies a day? It might be a great number. Who knows?

Efforts are under way to implement standards on the Internet, but even here there are dueling agendas.

CASIE, the Coalition for Advertiser Supported Information and Entertainment, last month issued proposed guidelines for ad sizing and placement, a worthy goal since there are currently nearly 100 different banner sizes.

SEEKING TO LEGITIMIZE

But another industry group looking to legitimize the medium, the Internet Advertising Bureau, is developing its own guidelines for ad sizes. And some Web advertisers say they don't even want standards since unique sizes are among the only ways to get banner ads to break through the clutter.

Ad sizing is just one area of contention in the fight for Web standards. There are no guidelines on pricing, on agency compensation, on tracking the medium's efficiency and effectiveness.

When sites pitch ad agencies on traffic, some still talk about hits, some about sessions, some about page views. Agencies are getting fed up. One shop now immediately cuts short meetings with anyone who mentions the word "hits."

There are critics who claim standards won't work on the Internet, who prefer its wild-frontier image. These are the same people who thought two years ago that advertising would never be welcome on the Internet.

That's nonsense. The Web is already an important marketing platform, but when and only when it sets the right standards will it be able to fully flourish as an advertising medium.

Scott Donaton is executive editor of Advertising Age.

Copyright November 1996, Crain Communications Inc.

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