Display: A Medium Unsuited to the Message


squarepeg_small.jpgADOTAS – With the economy in recession and consumers examining their checking account balances more closely than ever, marketers have followed suit — spelling trouble for online display ads.

In the first half of 2009, display accounted for only 34% of U.S. online ad spend. Of that, only 38% sold with CPM pricing.

So the quid pro quo for the majority of online display advertisers has become the accountability and results that click-through and conversion-based pricing delivers.

Once the online display gurus stopped ringing their hands, they freed them for typing. Not necessarily better ads, mind you, but defenses of their format and the CPM pricing models that brands treat with growing skepticism.

In a curious way, it’s heartening to observe industry insiders remember what they do for a living. When authoring campaigns for highly competitive clients, we often drop the gloves and start swinging. My beer is lite-er, their burger makes you fatter, my phone map is denser, my kid’s computer can beat up your dad’s computer.

Online display disciples have embraced this approach lately by suggesting (more or less) that while their format isn’t perfect, it at least doesn’t disqualify itself with embarrassingly low click-through data.

Embarrassing? In direct response — TV especially, but online as well — ad buyers at the very least can compare ad spend to direct sales income (a figure that’s inevitably underreported, as it doesn’t include sales through other channels).

No sane advertiser will challenge this common sense staple: if you sell more in merchandise than you spend on the advertising, you know that the format is working.

Defending the format is trickier for the online display crowd, which seems to theorize weekly against data. So I ask them: Where’s the beef?

You find business success in numbers, not nicely turned phrases. While a good slogan can work wonders, you still need some numbers to prove that they actually move merchandise.

It wasn’t even a generation ago that marketers trumpeted online formats for the strength of their precise measurability. Ten years later, with less favorable CTRs, we learn that numbers were perhaps overrated and that we don’t really need instant accountability, especially given display’s mighty branding powers. Unfortunately, branding takes time — curiously a bit longer than the length of a budgeted campaign.

Still, many crusaders for the online display CPM model parrot numbers when it suits them. They’re happy to challenge direct response models quoting click-through-rates that fall south of 0.1%, and a finding that a mere 8% of U.S. online users account for 85% of all clicks.

And they seem positively giddy about comScore’s “Whither the Click?” study that claims a 65% lift in site visitation in the week following the first exposure to a display campaign and an “incremental online sales lift” of 27%. Exciting and buzzworthy numbers!

But if I were considering an online display investment, the worst number is the legion of display defenders who have embraced defeatist reasoning. The argument is that since current online metrics don’t adequately measure what’s important — awareness, positive feelings and so forth — we should simply trot out different metrics that sound better (even though they too fail to reliably measure impact).

The comScore study responds to the assumption that click-based metrics don’t capture the breadth and depth of variables that boost brand awareness and drive purchase decisions.

Yet by attributing every sale to the appearance of an online display campaign (a 27% online sales lift!), it repeats the oversimplification it presumably counters. Chances are that TV, radio and billboards played a role in that sales lift as well. Who runs single medium campaigns?

From a metrics standpoint, the minute you acknowledge the interplay of dozens of variables, you diminish the importance of any one, including the variable that you want to spotlight. So like PC telling Mac he should “trust me,” too many online display salesmen ask marketing directors not to obsess so much about numbers — seemingly because the product is still struggling to define a reliable case-proving metric.

If you’re going to employ a particular ad channel, you should play to its strengths and do it profitably. The Internet is a lean-forward medium. People click purposefully, focusing so intently on the objects of their search, that they don’t take their eyes off the road.

Product-centric websites are a must because consumers actively seek product info online. Nobody seeks out display ads.

While ad aversion is problematic for all formats, it’s endemic to online display. And that’s not even factoring in the  problem on which The Wall Street Journal has reported. In this scam, ad networks deliver code-only “displays” that consumers literally can’t see, but that are nonetheless tallied and billed in CPM accounting.

And the ever-popular entreaties for “better creative”? Well, better ads might mask some online display symptoms, but they won’t effect cures. Fact is, some ad formats are inherently inferior for accomplishing certain purposes.

I butter my bread with direct response television, but know better than to lecture Pepsico to sell more Mountain Dew by inviting frat boys to call now (even if they packaged Dew in a keg).

An equally apparent fact is that the purpose-driven nature of the Internet is simply not conducive to awareness by osmosis.


  1. I wonder why it takes people so long to change? Why is it only when things collapse that the environment changes? Companies and people need to realize that if you are innovative and changing in the first place, you get market share.


  2. If display advertising has to share success with other mediums (TV, Print, Outdoor, etc…) then so does organic and paid search and every other type of online or offline advertising. It has been proven that paid and organic search click through rates increase when coupled with an integrated advertising campaign that includes display and offline components. Truth be told, all mediums that are included in a campaign share in it’s overall success. In fact, today’s campaign benefits from yesterday’s campaign. Those who simplify metrics down to an individual keyword’s success and give it 100% of the credit are making assumptions that are skewed and inaccurate.

    If you don’t believe me, think about he last time you executed a paid search campaign for a company that has never advertised in any other way before, were the paid search results on par with campaigns you have run for established brands that were running integrated campaigns? Unlikely.


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