As Internet advertising finds its feet, advertisers are learning their way round the intricacies of the medium. In an uncertain world of hits, page impressions and click-throughs, Web audits promise to measure the impact of ads more precisely than was previously possible.
ABC//electronic’s Website audit service, launched last year, helps advertisers justify Website spending, says managing director Richard Foan. “Our customers find the cost of the audit is far outweighed by the benefits, not just to sell space and sponsorship but also to justify the Website within the organisation,” he adds.
Just how much can an audit tell about the relative success of advertisements? “The depth of information available depends on how the site collects its own information,” says Foan. “If it has a registration front end that collects demographic data, then during each visit every hit in the log file is tied effectively to the registrant.”We can analyse and audit each page impression back to the registrant’s details.”
With the right systems in place, says Foan, it is possible to find out who has clicked through to a specific ad, at what time, and how long they spent before moving on to the next page.
But Tony Simpson, managing director of Team Marketing Communications and technology spokes-man for the Sales Promotion Consul- tants Association (SPCA), cautions advertisers against placing too much emphasis on audit results – mainly because it is so dependent on having the right systems in place that Foan refers to.
“They can audit hits, but they can’t necessarily audit how many of those hits are first-time viewers or follow-ups. The dichotomy is, the objective of a good Website is repeat business: to attract the same person so they come back over and over again. Most banner advertising does not ask people to give any indication of who they are – so it’s very difficult to tell whether they have visited the site before or not.”
Truly reactive Web advertising (and, by implication, analysis) will become possible as more players in the industry move into push and pull technology, says Simpson.
“In the future you’ll turn on your computer and it will recall what you’ve been looking at, your profile and the information you’ve given to certain Website organisations. It will have relevant information for you on your start screen. That’s when advertising and promotions on the Web will become more active rather than passive,” says Simpson.
Internet response mechanisms are crucial in determining whether a click-through leads to a sale, says Michael Page, director of Acxiom Interactive Services.
“People get wildly differing results from banner advertising – anywhere between 0.25 per cent and 4.5 per cent response. Every client should really think about getting professionals who are direct response-oriented involved in designing banner ads for the Web,” he says.
There are usually logical reasons for low response. “UK advertisers often put UK-specific products on sites which have an international audience. Therefore 80 per cent of the audience knows it’s irrelevant and they get low click-through rates and say it doesn’t work well.”
Even in the right context, ads often fail to get results because the wrong people have designed the follow-up mechanisms, insists Page. “Above-the-line practitioners have seized control of Internet advertising, to the detriment of the industry. Because the Internet is interactive and visual, it’s very aligned to a multimedia televisual medium. The ad agencies have piled in, because to them it’s almost as good as interactive TV. So they’ve grabbed control of marketing communications for the Internet. But the medium is better exploited by direct marketing people.”
Banner ads designed by above-the-line agencies often route enquiries straight into a corporate site, complains Page. “They take visitors through to a main menu of a company; the home page. Direct response people would understand that visitors should go straight through to a specific page for that product.”
Another phenomenon Page derides is the extensive use of electronic forms to elicit responses. “We believe that the Internet is a skimming medium – people dive in and out, and flick through pages quickly. You can grab someone’s attention and get them to pick up the phone, but if you ask them to fill in a form, they won’t do it. ‘Call now’ technology, which links them straight through to a call centre, is a better solution,” says Page.
Where ads are targeted at existing customers, direct response techniques come into their own through embedded links to ads within e-mails which have unique customer identifiers contained in them.
“Here, push and pull technology works together,” explains Page. “The beauty of it is that if we send out 10,000 e-mails we know exactly how many people have responded.”
Neil Colling, director of Web marketing consultants Strategies, questions whether traditional forms of advertising translate effectively to the Web. As the developer of Marketing UK, the industry’s first community Website, Colling believes the site’s independence and non-commercial nature is crucial in allowing for the collection of data on its visitors.
“As an independent editorial site, one attracts far more genuine professional interest than any corporate site could ever achieve. Marketing UK is a compulsory registration Website which enables us to capture the details of visitors. We can then enter real dialogue with registrants, rather than merely bombarding them with sales messages,” says Colling.
The way forward, in his opinion, is for companies to become sponsors of sites rather than to advertise on them. The Marketing UK site’s sponsor, TDS Group, has gained much from this relationship, says Colling. “Being the sponsors of a site has enabled TDS to take a higher ground, since company Websites do little to build the company profile in the business community. The site has the advantage of providing a believable electronic presence, rather than merely a company ad.”
Advertising targeted at the youth market is clearly also an important area for Internet advertising because of the high level of new media awareness in this sector. Chris Sice, editor of online magazine dotmusic, is pleased with the results of the magazine’s first ABC audit last October, which placed it ahead of the long-established NME.
“We found the audit very valuable. Advertisers are still becoming accustomed to the Net and they need to feel confident that the numbers everybody’s talking about are real. We know from the audit that we have 80,000 users. Suddenly, from an advertising point of view, we’re talking about mass numbers.”
Response mechanisms are built into much of dotmusic’s advertising. Some ads use icons instead of banners to attract click-throughs, as in the case of the Levi’s site.
“People see banners all over the place these days, whereas an icon is something completely different. For Levi’s we had people e-mailing us thanking us for the entertainment. It added to the experience of coming to the site.”
Inter-site links are also useful tools in the quest to gather information, says Rob Stevenson, managing director of the Wicked Widgets, a children’s promotion consultancy. He co-ordinates cross-linked children’s promotions on the Net. “Although we are not audited, we can provide figures to advertisers at the end of every promotion because we get live data back. We’re trying to make it more fulfilling for people to come to the site, using special offers and deals.”
But Simpson warns that no amount of analysis and feedback will change certain basic Net realities, such as the difficulty of selling unknown brands on the Internet.
“Established brands can very easily be marketed on the Internet. If you’re talking about a brand that doesn’t exist, it’s hard to find on the Web because people don’t know what they’re looking for. It’s about reinforcement of brands, which is why screensavers and branded games are very popular. As far as the medium creating the message is concerned, it’s still in its infancy.”
Nevertheless, Foan at ABC//electronic is pleased with the progress that has been made in the accountability of the Web advertising industry in so short a time.
“The sites that are now actually making money for their owners demonstrates that something must have been done well. There are people who have the vision to realise that new media is exactly that: a new form of communicating.”