Thursday, May 21, 2009

Online Publishing Insider: Avoiding Risky Behavior

Avoiding Risky Behavior

Those of us raising teenagers are all doing our best to teach our offspring not to participate in risky behavior. We promise rides home from parties with no questions asked. We talk about safe driving practices, seatbelts, safe sex (OK, some of us don't talk about that), not to trust people they "meet" on the Internet. You get the idea. Being safe, or at least making smart choices about risk, is one of the key attributes of mature behavior.

But every day, in the business world, we aid and abet risky behavior.

I recently moderated a panel at the MIN Day Digital Summit about how publishers manage the demand for "customized, integrated, unique" proposals that are requested in media RFPs. It was an august panel representing leaders in consumer, healthcare, and business-to-business media. Panelists presented interesting examples of how they had responded to clients' RFPs for custom-integrated campaigns.

The attitude of the media companies represented on the panel, and of the industry in general, seems to be "the client is always right," so let's figure out ways to give the client what they ask for. And that was the point of the panel, to talk about how to do this effectively and efficiently.

So we had very interesting presentations: David Enberg from Web MD showed how the site had created custom online content for Crest, while Time, Inc.'s Amanda Kanaga displayed the work the company did for Asics that created a whole new environment on the topic of running to capture new revenue. Matt Yorke of IDG described an elaborate global multimedia program for AMD -- the chip maker -- that is expected to span print and online and run multiple years. Meanwhile, Tracy Quitasol of the New York Times showed how t he company used PointRoll to develop custom-integrated content that can be delivered on the page -- so the reader doesn't have to leave the Times' site to see and interact with the content, and so the advertisers can be directly guaranteed how many impressions they'll get; no need to drive traffic to a separate place.

All this, however, begs the question: Is it even a good idea to create custom marketing messages? Isn't this just introducing risk into the campaign, so it won't be as effective as a tested and proven ad? "Custom" implies new and, generally, untested. In today's environment where we focus on results, wouldn't it be most appropriate for advertisers to create really effective marketing messages and them run them a lot? In a world where we can test the effectiveness of ad creative easier than ever before, why do advertisers have so little faith in their creative, that they want to hand off the presentation of their marketing message to a media company? In an advertising world where clients are trying to mitigate risk, why add risk in every media plan?

Steve Greenberger, too, wonders why risk isn't mitigated up front: "This has created an incredible gaping hole in decision-making today. A very expensive one indeed," he says. Greenberger, a long-time senior media buying executive at Initiative Media before starting his consultancy, believes that advertisers should concentrate first on getting their creative messages right, making them as effective as possible, then running them in the right places -- not changing them in each media. To help advertisers optimize creative before spending their media dollars, Greenberger partnered with Brunofsky Research to design the Creative Diagnostics service for advertisers. Designed to be used pre-media buy, the service attempts to evaluate how prospective customers respond to the creative being developed, and how that creative message might interact with other elements in the selling environment, including point of purchase messages, third-party messaging like retailer spending, and even the competitions' messages.

It has become axiomatic in the advertising industry that consumers will ignore traditional advertising messages. So advertisers are seeking all variety of ways to"'integrate" their message where it can't be ignored, or creating customized content to deliver the message.

But we can say with confidence that good creative does work. The problem is that there is not enough creative that engages its target audience. So publishers seek to win business by cynically creating "integrated" proposals. Each one is supposed to be "unique." How can publishers do that?

The New York Times' solution, combining archival Times editorial content with advertisers' material to create custom integrated campaigns delivered on-page with PointRoll or other rich-media technologies, is a really smart way to answer advertisers' requests. It benefits from the fact that there is virtually no subject not in the Times archives, and that by delivering it on-page -- rather than in a microsite -- the Times can guarantee how many exposures it will deliver to the customer. But even this elegant solution fails on the basics of advertising: make an ad that works, and then run it a lot. 

In today's' environment we're not going to hear of an epidemic of media telling clients to take a hike with their request for a "custom integrated" program. But publishers can work on building programs and services that will help advertisers compare the effectiveness of their creative to past creative and to other campaigns. Publishers can begin to advise their clients to avoid behavior that only increases risk to their spending plans. Pointing the way for advertisers to focus on the quality of their own creative would be a good place to start for Internet media companies seeking to take the pressure off the rates they charge.

So-called "integration" isn't the only way to "add value" to a campaign. How much would it help advertisers to know how the click rate of their leaderboards, or rectangles, or their Flash-video ads for that matter, compare to the average click rates  of their competitors? Combining all the advertisers in a category together to create a benchmark, involves no violation of their competitive privacy, and every advertiser will want to know how they compare to the average.

I urge publishers to help their advertising customers avoid risky behavior and understand how their creative agencies and media-buying services are serving them by providing creative performance comparison feedback reports like I have described.

Daniel Ambrose is a media management strategy consultant and sales trainer. He helped launch iVillage,, and You can learn more about his services here: He recently published the Â"Internet Sales Guidebook,Â" which you can buy -- with a special authors discount -- here:

Online Publishing Insider for Thursday, May 21, 2009:

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