The Bigger Bang

Is this any way to run a new paradigm?

For a bunch of high-flying visionaries, we web ad folks sure have a hard time letting go of old ideas. Empowering technology and consumer behavior are consistently way out in front of our advertising and ROI models. And don't look now, but were in danger of falling two full laps behind. Back in the web's bronze age - '97, '98 - an 'interactive online ad' was one that you could - get this - actually click on and be transported to the advertiser's website! And what wonders then ensued: you could be informed, entertained, interrogated, sized up, processed and transacted with. You could play games, answer polling questions, search for product information and even interact with the company via chat or e-mail. The banner? Well, not much to say about the banner. It was the digital equivalent of that guy in the big collar and his dad's tie who hectors you at the mall and tries to get you to take part in some 'research.' You know: the one you try desperately not to make eye contact with.

Then along came a set of intervening, empowering technologies. Improved bandwidth, Flash and some smart creative vendors conspired to create radical new on-page ads: ads that could inform and interrogate you, size you up, process you and even transact with you. These ads demanded no exit from your existing web experience; they simply expanded on contact and invited interaction within the ad itself. Suddenly there was less and less need for the advertiser to even have a website. So naturally this prompted a radical reexamination of the click-through as our defining metric and ushered in a new golden age where ROI would be expansively defined and creativity would flourish.

Ahem... well...

Ten years have gone by and everything has changed. Everything, that is, except our crack-like dependency on the click. In recent months I've spoken to dozens of marketers, agency execs and publishers and it's become dismally apparent that nobody's really moving on. Maybe the click-based success of Google is effectively blocking the sun on this issue, but we're still living in collective darkness. It's impossible to realize the true depth of web ROI when we always default to a metric that says we fail 975 of every 1000 times we touch the consumer.

So despite all our bold, visionary talk, I figure our ROI modeling is trailing the technology and the actual behavior of our consumers (remember them?) by at least five years, if not more. And guess what? Another twister is forming that's going to rearrange the furniture yet again. Video content and advertising is already here; Ajax, widgets, applications and other dynamic content delivery technologies will soon challenge the very notion of the page view and current understanding of consumer interaction. Will we still be talking about click rates five years from now?

Why are we still on the pipe? Probably because it's easier to be simple than it is to be right; it's simpler to follow our clients than it is to lead; and because for all our supposed edginess and vision, we're really just a bunch of risk-averse conservatives. Look up: the true future of digital marketing is happening at warp speed. It's a lousy time to be working with stone tools.

Send your comments and questions directly to Doug Weaver