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One of the hallmarks of the great popular success of the National Basketball Association is the fact that so many marketers have built plans around the league's drawing power. That makes the outward patience these NBA sponsors have shown with the league's labor problems understandable. Still, this patience should have limits.

Marketers, of course, have no seat at the NBA bargaining table -- where both sides have already sacrificed the early weeks of the season (and, most likely, marketers' fourth-quarter promotional plans as well). How much more damage the NBA and its union do to their league and to marketers is anyone's guess. The New York Times fretted last week about a "real possibility . . . most, if not all, of the coming season will be cancelled." That possibility should argue against torpor on the part of marketers.

NBA Properties President Rick Welts, left dangling like his marketing clients, talks about his confidence that "long-term" marketer commitments" to the NBA seem solid, and he's probably right. Seeing how the National Football League and Major League Baseball recovered from labor disasters, however, may feed the notion that the two sides in the NBA dispute can hang tough for a long time without jeapordizing their future. That's bad news for the NBA fan and the NBA advertiser.

No marketer wants to tell the NBA and its players how to run their business so long as the product continues to attract fans and the price asked from marketers fairly reflects value given. But no marketer wants to be taken for granted, either. If there is no progress in negotiations, the best spur for marketers to apply is to use this NBA blackout period to aggressively experiment with new ways to reach what had been the NBA audience. That can speak louder than words.New shopper

While marketers try to figure out whether the Web is better used for branding or direct response, they should pay attention to a new breed of online shopper that wants to use the Web the way it was intended to be used: as a self-service medium.

In this week's Interactive Media & Marketing Special Report on electronic commerce, beginning after Page 34, the results of Advertising Age's sixth annual interactive media survey show that while consumer users of the Web are becoming more resistant to online advertising in general, they're also buying more online than ever before and seeking out information on their own.

Today's Web-savvy consumer reflects a new generation of shopper who uses technology to find specific product information on company home pages, downloads special software to view video ads and readily types in the credit card number to make a buy.

These findings should tell marketers to stop obsessing over the branding/direct response issue and find ways to deliver personalized, targeted information to users who are asking for it.

Retailers such as Macy's and The Gap have figured that out this year, and they will use highly targeted online services to boost sales this holiday season. Sophisticated personalization tools are helping marketers to win those sales gains, and new rich-media research from @Home should give advertisers even more information on using the Web medium to its potential.

Electronic commerce is not about taking existing models online; it's about creating entirely new ones. The companies that succeed at doing that will be the winners.

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