Text Ads Taking Us Into the Future

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It’s funny which memories stick as time goes on: Once, back in high school, my English teacher, Ms. Gold, asked us to write ourselves a letter on the first day of school. At the year’s end, she promised, she would send those letters back to us so we could appreciate what had changed, who we had dumped and what we’d learned. It was a good lesson about how the passage of time changes almost everything—so good, in fact, that it’s now been turned into a hot marketing idea (using some minor technological advances) to drive eyeballs to Forbes.com, all via text ad.

After our very own Editor-in-Chief, Liz, sent an email using her Yahoo! Mail account, she was pleasantly surprised to see a text ad appear on the “sent mail” page, offering her a chance to send her next email to herself… 20 years from now. The ad was simple as could be and text only. It read:

Email delivery date: 2025 (yes, 2025). Want to talk to yourself in the future? It’s easy. Just make your own Email Time Capsule and Yahoo! Mail will work with our friends at Forbes.com to deliver it in 20 years.

Say what? Liz was captivated and asked me to do a little digging around. What I found was that Forbes.com, with a little help from their friends—Yahoo and Codefix Consultancy, a small technology consultancy—have collaborated to allow users logging on between October 24th and November 30th to create a unique email time capsule for themselves, which they can program to send at some point between 1 and 20 years from the date of the capsule’s creation.

I admit I too was sucked in by the idea and spent a little time crafting a reminder to myself about the current details of my life. But as neat as the concept itself is, what really got me thinking was Yahoo and Forbes.com’s decision to use a text ad to spread the word on their nifty, new, nostalgic tool, rather than the kind of flashy image placement that one might assume would bring it more attention. In the case of the time capsule campaign, simplicity reigns. No flashing lights, no Shoot the Monkey banners, nothing fancy. And yet, we still were inclined to click through.

Of course I’m no stranger to the idea of the Sponsored Link (or how much money Google and Yahoo have made off of them). But this was not a search return, and for such a creative product you’d think there would have been some push to devise a more creative…umm…creative for the campaign. So why, exactly, did Yahoo and Forbes.com decide to go the text route, rather than placing image ads on content pages somewhere overly shiny and visible?

To get a first had take on this particular marketing decision, I gave Forbes a ring—and immediately ran into a roadblock. In response to my phone call, I received a brief email reply from someone (who wished to remain nameless) at Forbes.com, that said this: “You need to ask Yahoo about the ads because we really didn’t have anything to do with them.” Not much information, but at least it led me to my next phone call.

Following my Forbes buddy’s suggestion, I managed to track down someone from Yahoo with a bit of inside knowledge, but who also asked to remain anonymous. That source explained the marketing decisions for the campaign thus: “Basically, after the E-mail Time Capsule feature story ran [on Forbes.com], the Forbes.com and Yahoo! Mail marketing folks got together to discuss online ways to promote the piece. They decided to do a co-promotion so that Forbes.com would include the Yahoo! Mail link at the bottom of the article driving people back to Yahoo! Mail, and Yahoo! Mail agreed to deliver the following promotion in one of our ad modules.” The source added via email that, “This was a goodwill thing — just Forbes.com and Yahoo! helping drive traffic for one another. Since this wasn’t a paid placement, I’m guessing that we used plain text because it was the quickest and most effective way to implement this promo on the fly.”

Which opens up an interesting question: If text ads really represent a “quick” and “most effective” method of advertising, how are they competing with image based ads overall these days? Neilson/NetRatings AdRelevance reports tell us that standard image impressions for the month of October came in at over 68 billion—while sponsored text links amounted to some 10 billion fewer than that. And yet nobody can seem to stop saying enough about the advent, and coming ascendancy, of the text ad over the imagistic, and there are some good reasons why: Google seems to stick by (and do exceptionally well with) their text-only format; in fact, the New York Times ran a piece just this week crowing about the company’s role in moving the Internet advertising towards a move simplistic creative ethos (i.e, text).

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