Web sites could profit from traditional ads

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If you're a regular Internet user, you undoubtedly have a long file of bookmarked sites. Here's an interesting exercise for Web marketers: Take a quick look through your most valuable bookmarks and try to remember how you first learned about each site.

What you'll find is that, generally, your most-used sites came from newspaper stories, magazine articles, word of mouth from friends and occasional hotlink serendipity. Perhaps one or two were discovered at the end of a search engine query or ad banner click-through.

But here's the key thing to realize: Very few of those bookmarks were found via traditional, non-online advertising. Consumer Web sites, you see, don't really do regular advertising to get customers.

True, the business operating the site might advertise, but the Web push is always an afterthought in traditional media: A URL on the side of the package or supered at the bottom of the screen, usually in really small type.

Doesn't that seem strange? Generally, when a new business in a crowded field wants to make its name known, it advertises. That's the whole point of advertising. Yes, good PR and free media coverage are a great help, but you can't always control that -- and neither can the customer. Good advertising, on the other hand, is tried and true, measured, quantified, reliable.

Let me give you an example: I'm shopping for a new pair of computer speakers and I want to do it on the Web. Unfortunately, no one has branded themselves the ultimate consumer electronics stop online, and I can't find what I want through the usual run of search engine queries. Eventually, I give up. That's a potential online customer lost that advertising could have saved.

Given the stakes, why don't commercial consumer Web sites advertise themselves more in traditional media? One reason, I believe, is the lingering legacy of the Net's non-commercial upbringing.

In the early days of the World Wide Web, way back in 1994, word of cool new sites spread like Russian samizdat, scribbled on the back of business cards or written up in specialized magazines. Online, everyone tried to trade hotlinks, and the ever-escalating game of manipulating search engines via HTML metatags took off.

To this day, the norm for publicizing a new site is to fill out forms to get listed on all the Internet directories and search engines, mass e-mail a press release, trade where you can for online links and, if you're a big company, actually buy some ad banners on the big media or software sites.

This is fine -- as far as it goes. The problem is that online advertising has its limits: It's like preaching to the converted. We're all fighting for the same pool of current online customers and we're doing little to grab the much bigger group that's sitting on the sidelines.

That brings us to the bigger reason consumer Web sites generally don't advertise themselves: Companies still don't quite see their Internet presence as products in their own right. But having monitored the growth of e-commerce during the fourth quarter, I predict that attitude will change substantially this year, bringing with it a larger view of how to market a Web presence.

The result will be not only continued growth in online advertising, but also, sooner or later, a bigger emphasis on traditional marketing of individual sites.

The bottom line here is that if you're going to do real business on the Web, you'd better do real advertising, too.

David Klein is associate publisher-editor of the Ad Age Group.

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