Are display ads staging a comeback?

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UTest, a software testing marketplace, is typical of many b-to-b marketers in its choices of online marketing vehicles. Matt Johnston, the company’s CMO, said uTest currently favors targeted digital efforts rather than online display advertising. Online display “is not one of the workhorses for us,” he said. “For us the workhorses are search and social, because you can target those much easier.” In the wake of the recession that struck in 2008, lead generation has been the main priority for marketers, many of which looked to drive sales with webcasts, email programs and other tools. In that climate, marketers cooled toward online display advertising. In 2009, for instance, b-to-b online display advertising dropped 9% compared with 2008, according to Forrester Research. Nonetheless, indications are that the medium is heating up. Google’s reported $400 million acquisition of publisher ad platform AdMeld offers further evidence that the future is bright for online display advertising.

Overall display ad spending, which includes consumer and b-to-b, grew to $9.9 billion last year, an increase of 24% over 2009, according to Interactive Advertising Bureau figures. Spending on online display advertising is growing so fast, in fact, that eMarketer projects it will surpass spending on search marketing in 2015. B-to-b online display will share in this growth, with Outsell Inc. anticipating that marketer spending on industry specific sites, most of which is online display advertising, will increase 22.1% this year compared with last year. The reasons for the anticipated growth in online display are many. Marketers are realizing they need to build awareness and deliver thought-leadership content to prospects earlier in the sales process. They are looking to boost the frequency of their contacts with prospects. They are also seeing the value of video in online advertising, as well as the benefits of retargeting and other methods of pinpointing prospects. UBM’s TechWeb is among the many business media companies seeing increases in online display spending. “I would say that banner business, it’s probably up 20% to 25% over last year,” said Martha Schwartz, exec VP-sales at UBM’s InformationWeek Business Technology Network at TechWeb. “It’s significant. We are literally selling out of inventory on every single site. And we’re growing. It’s a problem: I could use more inventory.” CDW-G, the government unit of CDW, is betting on online display advertising. “Online display advertising can be very effective and measurable if used strategically,” said Lisa De Luca, senior manager-federal marketing at CDW-G. “We use more rich-media sections to deliver solutions that have video, white papers, reference materials and website links tied together in one advertisement, with more immediate response through download registrations than direct-mail alternatives. Surveys [and] links to immediate offers can also be effective when you can show the results immediately to the user or make it easy to order through one click.” Kevin Arsham, VP-account director at Targetcast, said online display advertising—especially with its improved rich media capabilities—is “now delivering awareness to consideration to thought leadership.” Rishi Dave, executive director-online marketing at Dell’s public and large enterprise unit, said he worries about “banner blindness.” He sees the rise of video as a potential solution. “You have to use more creativity, and I think video is one of the big things that can help,” he said. Russell Glass, CEO of Bizo, a b-to-b online network, said online display advertising can deliver an often overlooked element in Web marketing. “Display advertising by far exceeds any other vehicle that you can use to create frequency,” he said. “Let’s say you do a web­cast every month. You’re lucky to get each one of your customers to a webcast or two in a year.” Online ad networks such as Bizo and its competitors can do more than provide simple frequency. Using targeting based on behavior, context and user profiles, online ads can be aimed at more precise audiences than in the past. Even more attractive to marketers is retargeting, which allows a particular company’s ads to be retargeted to prospects who have visited that company’s website or downloaded a specific white paper. Paul Dunay, CMO of Networked Insights and a former marketing executive at Avaya, is a fan of retargeting. “The way I really love to use banners is through retargeting,” he said. “You can hit [prospects] with something really relevant. Those have been extremely effective.” “We will retarget campaigns to make sure the client gets the most out of them,” UBM’s Schwartz said. “Through our system and what’s on the back end, we’re much more sophisticated than we were six months ago.”

Advances in targeting technology and approaches are causing something of a convergence in display, search and social media—which have been disparate silos. An example of this technological convergence is AdReady, an online ad network. AdReady offers marketers an online, self-service platform similar to Google’s AdWords program to choose search keywords and create display ads, which can be produced from a variety of templates. Under partnerships with Google and Yahoo, AdReady then places the ads on pages that feature the search keywords the marketers have selected. Randy Wootton, AdReady’s senior VP-sales, service and marketing, said AdReady combines the targeting of search with the capability of display to enable content marketing and thought leadership. “You need to reach your potential market further up the funnel [than search marketing alone does],” Wootton said. In addition to borrowing the techniques of search marketing, display advertising is also taking hold in social media. B-to-b marketers are placing extremely targeted display ads on LinkedIn. “It’s very targeted,” Caroline Riby, media director at Roberts Communications, said of LinkedIn. “You can go after various LinkedIn groups with white papers.” This week, Bizo will announce a move that also more closely links display advertising and social media. The company plans to introduce a beta version of a new link shortener called Bizo Switchboard. A marketer can use this link shortener in a tweet, for example, to direct a prospect to a white paper. Using its anonymous data on more than 85 million business professionals, Bizo can provide an overall business demographic makeup (industry, company size, job function) of the people who click on the link. Bizo will also offer a retargeting capability to enable marketers to serve display ads to the people who click on a Switchboard link. “Everything is now tied together,” Glass said. “In your analytics, now you have a real tie with social and the rest of your media.”

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