This Time Around

As I write this column, I'm in the Green Mountains of Vermont, a continent away from this week's @dTech conference, which I read is "abuzz with optimism" about the feisty comeback of the online advertising business. Those reading the tea leaves point to glowing report cards issued by Goldman Sachs and the IAB; to the stellar performance of Yahoo! and Google; to recent bullish public remarks by McDonald's and MediaVest; even to the number of booths at @dTech, which may or may not be your most solid economic indicator. While there's nobody more bullish on the core value of the Internet as a marketing medium, I have to ask that we all take a breath before we declare the onset of the next boom.

If you believe - as I do - that a fundamental reallocation of marketing dollars toward the Internet is underway, then you may be hoping - as I am - that we don't screw it up this time around. With that in mind, here is a "reality checklist" to help us remain tethered to what's solid and bankable about our industry... and to avoid the pitfalls that can derail the growth track that we're on.

1. BROADBAND ISN'T "THE ANSWER."The is no "the answer." Just new sets of questions. There's no question that the adoption figures and improved user experience afforded by broadband are all great for the online ad business. But let's not over-sell and over-hype broadband the way we have every other technical feature of our medium. Stay focused on the relationship your customers have with the Internet - and your site - TODAY.

2. TARGETING MUST CO-EXIST WITH SCALE. I hear from a great many publishers who are exploring ways to segment and categorize their user-base to deliver on the web's promise of meaningful ad targeting. But as they begin to discuss the possibilities with buyers the whole thing becomes somewhat surreal. Can you target high school students in Ohio who have downloaded a rap MP3 file in the last 90 days? Maybe. But why the hell would you want to? You'll reach about nine of them and will actually lose money on the deal. When you target, target big, substantial audience clusters, and charge a premium for them. To move dollars into the medium, we don't need to fulfill the fantasies of the media planner; we just need to be better than "adults 18-49."

3. INTERRUPTING IS OK... What we're doing is advertising, which by its very nature is intrusive. If six of your site visitors complain about an interstitial or DHTML unit you run, that's not a backlash and it shouldn't drive policy. We can always make our advertising more relevant, funnier and better looking, but let's also agree that, no matter what we do, no consumer will ever love advertising or choose to get more of it. Let's stop overreacting.

4. ...BUT INTEGRATING IS EVEN BETTER. If the inventors of TV advertising could have foreseen the remote control, the VCR and the TiVo, they never would have invented the stand-alone 30-second spot. In response, TV is already beginning its ham-handed scramble toward content integration through product placement, fuzzy infomercial content within regular programming, screen crawls and on-screen animation. We can avoid this fate if we never segregate our content and advertising in the first place. Put your organization's creative energy into more elegantly blending content and marketing services. Don't settle for just doing "Internet commercials." Use the whole screen.

5. STRATIFY THE ENVIRONMENT. For the next couple of years, when you say "Internet advertising" the public is going to think one of two things: pop-ups and spam. Like it or not, our business is going to be defined negatively by the least attractive and satisfying forms of advertising we employ. So far, the Direct Marketing Association has been largely mute on the issue of spam, while the regulation and capping of pop-up ads has been a low priority for the IAB and for many of its member companies. But as I've said many times, major advertisers are going to want a "clean well-lighted place" for their messaging before they commit body and soul to this medium. Sites that distance themselves from questionable ad units and practices will, in my opinion, be the long-term winners. Cleaning up the neighborhood is the ultimate solution, but distancing your site from the bad guys is a great first step.

6. STOP TALKING TO OURSELVES. There are many incredibly smart and dedicated people in our medium, including great interactive ad agencies and outstanding interactive point-people at many brands. But we've got to come to grips that we're still living together in the interactive ghetto. Unless and until we really engage with chief marketing officers, brand managers and ad agency presidents, we're not really moving forward. Focus sales time and marketing money on the highest levels of customers. Don't wait for "the industry" or the trade organizations to do it. Take action yourelf. NOW.

Advertisers are - in the end - very smart people. Today's average brand manager is about 30 years old and has spent an entire career in a world dominated by digital media and communication. They get it. The heavy rate increases by network TV in the face of declining ratings are a bitter pill to swallow. Change is happening: Online is on the ascent.

The only things that kill the momentum are the confusion we sow and the unreasonable expectations we set in the minds of customers. Let's all be more thoughtful... this time around.

Send your comments and questions directly to Doug Weaver