Capturing the Clicks: Eight (Research-Based) Tips for Online Advertising That Really Works

After over a decade, we’ve gotten pretty Internet savvy. But one concept that still
eludes many professionals is effective online advertising. A new book by experts at
The Advertising Research Foundation teaches you how to chase the clicks that really pay off.

Hoboken, NJ (May 2007)­The World Wide Web has been up and running for a little over ten years now, and during this decade many new frontiers have opened. You can email a business associate who’s on the other side of the world, watch your favorite TV shows online, download music, and take customer orders from your state-of-the-art website. But even after a decade, there is one area that still leaves many marketers and business owners befuddled. Online advertising. And if you’re still puzzling over why your latest campaign failed, the experts at The Advertising Research Foundation say you’ve probably been chasing those all-important mouse clicks in a way that’s, well . . . less than scientific.

            “Most Internet advertising campaigns are based on hunches and guesswork, not on the endless amounts of research that show what really brings great results in online advertising,” says Joe Plummer, an expert at The Advertising Research Foundation and coauthor along with Steve Rappaport, Taddy Hall, and Robert Barocci of The Online Advertising Playbook: Proven Strategies and Tested Tactics from the Advertising Research Foundation (Wiley, 2007, ISBN: 978-0-470-05105-4, $29.95). “Until now there hasn’t been a standard resource that marketers could turn to for research-backed, trustworthy advice.”

The Online Advertising Playbook­which promises to become the go-to guide for marketers, brand managers, agency leaders, and entrepreneurs­has changed that reality. It provides actionable, proven principles that will help all marketers leverage the vast opportunities that exist in Internet advertising.

The Online Advertising Playbook serves as the new benchmark for best practices in online advertising. The book synthesizes research and learning from over 1,200 research documents on Internet advertising, providing a comprehensive look at what it takes to build a successful online advertising campaign for any company.

            What do we really know about using the Internet to advertise effectively? More to the point, what should we know? The authors of The Online Advertising Playbook shed light on eight key areas to consider:

Target the right consumers with your ad. With online advertising you can locate precise groups of consumers, whether they are current customers or attractive prospects. You do it by targeting, and the practice will help you deliver messages that really matter to your customers. “There are several newer online targeting approaches from the old school, which is demographic and geographic, to the new school, which is purchase-based,” says Plummer. “You’ll need to get as much information about your customers as possible to determine which method is going to work for you. One thing to look out for is that you don’t overdefine your market. If you do, you could end up advertising to your most responsive customers, but they may represent only a small slice of your customer base. Keep your focus on the targeting approaches that help you create the most innovative, cost-effective, and successful advertisements.”

What about reach and frequency? Learn the magic numbers. Advertising effectiveness is all about reaching the right people the right number of times with the right combination of media. So how many times can you present an ad before it loses its effectiveness? According to a common industry rule of thumb, most brand objectives reach diminishing returns somewhere between four and ten exposures to an individual. Success will come for those who strike a balance between reach and frequency. “This is an area that is constantly changing in online advertising,” says Plummer. “More and more traditional reach and frequency measures are being supplemented with newer engagement and brand interaction metrics. Successful online marketers will be those who embrace online advertising with concepts and metrics that emerge organically from online advertising, and reduce their dependence on ill-fitting reach and frequency measures from an earlier age.”

Don’t try to recycle your offline ad. From offline to online, how should your ad change? Probably quite a bit. It’s likely that you won’t be able to simply tweak your offline ad, toss it up on the World Wide Web, and watch as it brings in customers. You’ll need to create an ad with a prominent logo, clear ad flow, and a format matched to the job it needs to perform in order to effectively get across your message. “With online advertising, a whole new world has opened up with regard to creating innovative, fresh ads,” says Plummer. “Use these new creative capabilities to communicate your brand and engage the customer. Ad types, ad sizes, and the use of rich media video, games, and other new creative forms impact branding and advertising effectiveness in a positive way. Creativity is critical. Colorful, engaging executions with eye-catching headlines or interactive capabilities will be needed more and more as clutter increases and as brand advertising becomes more interwoven with content.”

Strike a connection between online search and advertising. Search engine marketing has proven itself for traffic building, lead generation, and branding. The first step is using offline print and broadcast advertising to drive consumers to their computers to search for your products. “Consider using highly specialized search engines beyond the big three­Google, Yahoo!, and MSN­because research shows searchers who are on more intense missions spend more time at the specialized sites,” says Plummer. “Keep in mind that most search activity is time-challenged, so you’ll need to create highly engaging search text ads with excellent titles. Always make sure that the text ad or listing you use takes consumers to landing pages that will be most beneficial for them. Doing this will help you to more easily meet their expectations and immediately start to engage them in your brand experience.”

Take advantage of online shopping and buying. Online or offline searching, shopping, and purchasing all go together. According to Reverse Direct Marketing, nearly 90 percent of shoppers conduct “some sort” of research before they buy from a web retailer or offline store. This shopping activity is a major opportunity for online advertising that shouldn’t be ignored. “Online shopping and/or buying sites need to reflect a genuine commitment to the consumer,” says Plummer. “The key for success is for marketing and IT to work together to create a user-friendly, brand-building, and action-driven experience with minimal hassle for the customer or potential buyer.”

Use email and word of mouth to your advantage. The communication capabilities of the Internet have made email and word-of-mouth marketing viable possibilities for marketers. Research from eMarketer shows that close to 90 percent of all Internet users aged three and older­162 million kids, teens, and adults­used email at least once a month in 2006, sending messages about their business and personal lives, and yes, even recommending products they like to friends and family. Yes, that’s word-of-mouth marketing at work.

“Both email and word-of-mouth marketing have their challenges,” says Plummer. “With email marketing you’ll need to create an ethical permission-based email marketing plan in order to keep your messages out of spam folders. And as for word-of-mouth marketing, just remember that you can’t control it. Negative word of mouth can often disseminate much faster than positive word of mouth. Therefore, it is critical to integrate email marketing with positive product usage and service experiences.” 

Measure your success. The original promise of online advertising was that the Internet would allow more accurate measurement, the ability to gauge effectiveness, and the opportunity to optimize performance in real time. While it is true that digital media are more trackable and accountable than most other forms of advertising, the noise-to-data ratio remains high. There is such an overwhelming amount of information that can be collected that it becomes increasingly difficult to discern actionable metrics and insights under the avalanche of data. “Thankfully, a broad array of measurement services is available,” says Plummer. “There are audience measurement tactics, ad serving techniques, and niche measurement possibilities. Depending on your online advertising goals, budget, and degree of sophistication, you may need to utilize several of these services to get a holistic view of your online marketing.”

Look to the future.  Research from The Advertising Research Foundation discovered that three new models of advertising are emerging, and they’re different from the mass-media-rooted interrupt-and-repeat model and the search-based targeting model currently in vogue. It’s likely that all three of these new models will override the current model of advertising that is based on interrupting large media audiences with a message as many times as the advertising budget will permit. Let’s take a look at the future of online advertising:

Model 1: The permission-based (opt-in) model, centered on engagement, not exposure

Model 2: The model of consumer empowerment where both the time spent with messages and even the generation of word-of-mouth messages emanate from the consumer

Model 3: A model of advertising as a service to consumers

“These new models of advertising, while stimulated by experimentation online and emerging media forms, will become valuable models for advertising in general, not just online advertising,” says Plummer. “It is an exciting time for marketing and advertising practitioners and for consumers as well.”

            “Navigating the world of online advertising can feel like a tall task for marketers, but it doesn’t have to be guesswork,” says Plummer. “Just remember, while it may seem like a new frontier, a lot of people have compiled a lot of research about online advertising and how it works. Use it. The Playbook breaks all of this information down so that you know exactly what to do. It will help you develop a winning game plan for your online advertising efforts. Before you know it, you’ll be capturing the clicks that really count­the ones that put money in your pocket.”