Marketers Cast Around on Net, but It's Still a Fishing Expedition

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My daughter Heather was on a plane recently, and she sat next to the retired ad director of a big consumer-goods company who was also on the board of another marketer of highly visible consumer products.
'As we lunched with some Medill students who conversed so easily about how both journalists and marketers approach the new digital landscape, I thought that we no longer have the luxury to hire these young people and bring them along at a leisurely pace.' ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.
'As we lunched with some Medill students who conversed so easily about how both journalists and marketers approach the new digital landscape, I thought that we no longer have the luxury to hire these young people and bring them along at a leisurely pace.' ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.

They got to talking (it was a long flight), and the man confided to Heather that neither of his companies had figured out how to handle new media, and so they ended up doing nothing. There was a disconnect between the people who were trying to explain new media and the higher-ups who were trying to understand it.

'Don't feel confident'
Al Ries, the positioning and marketing whiz who writes a column for AdAge.com, talks to marketing people all over the world, and he says he doesn't find anybody who is confident about putting their money into the Internet. "Everybody is doing it, but they don't feel confident it's going to produce results."

I persuaded Al to sit down for an extensive interview because he didn't have an excuse to turn me down. We, along with our wives, were on a fishing trip in the wilds of Canada where the big bass were just a cast away.

Al contends that the Internet will turn out to be effective only when it goes very narrow on one specific topic. He thinks general advertising will end up being a poor buy on the Internet because viewers won't sit still for a message that tries to change their minds.

Controlling the material
"In traditional media you might sit and watch a commercial that tries to change your mind," Al says, "but on the Internet you say, 'Move on, it's getting in my way, I'm looking for something else.' The Internet is an active medium in the sense that the viewer is controlling the material he or she is looking for. You never actively search when you're watching TV."

Al uses the Internet extensively every day, yet he has never clicked on a display ad unrelated to the subject he was searching for. So to him the real question is whether the Internet can ever run a successful ad program that tries to capture a wide number of people.

In Al's opinion, people forget the traditional use of media. Print is good for rational messages, whereas emotional and demonstration themes are better on TV. "Each medium has its good qualities and bad qualities, and the Internet is only good for narrowly targeted messages for people who have already indicated an interest in a certain subject."

Amazon overexpands
Amazon, Al says will always be linked to books, and there is a "serious question" whether Amazon's efforts to sell everything will be effective. Al's main contention is that "everybody wants to be all things to all people but the real power is to stand for something very specific. The Internet is a collection of different media presenting millions of opportunities for narrowly focused products and services. It truly is the electronic Yellow Pages."

I attended a board-of-advisors meeting for Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism the other week where we heard how the digital media was forcing Medill to integrate both sides of its curriculum-journalism and marketing -- into one comprehensive program drawing on the strengths of both.

I couldn't help but think that the standard approach to media wasn't the only thing that was being turned on its head. As we lunched with some Medill students who conversed so easily about how both journalists and marketers approach the new digital landscape, I thought that we no longer have the luxury to hire these young people and bring them along at a leisurely pace. They understand what's going on far better than any of us at the table did, and their insights and familiarity with the Internet are sorely needed -- in responsible and authoritative jobs -- at the companies my daughter's seating companion worked for and at scores of other companies across the country.
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