Communicatus Interruptus

Online search is driving consumer purchasing habits and can also be applied to the offline world. Is search the new interruption model? asks David Wethey

When the heroic 19th century US pioneers of advertising, such as Francis Ayer and James Walter Thompson, invented the interruption model, they can have had little idea of the extent of their genius. At a stroke it transformed how newspapers and magazines worked. Until then readers had plotted a logical route through their favourite publications, free from commercial intervention. But once ads popped up, readers were potentially anybody’s. Even this, though, paled into insignificance beside the associated revolution in publishing.

The fortunes of publications and their proprietors would forever more be determined by advertising revenue, not circulation. Fifty years later, when radio arrived – to be followed by television – this business model served to create vast global commercial empires. You probably need no second warning that when commentators offer history lessons, it generally precedes a prediction that everything is about to change. Right again. The interruption model is not dead. It is simply being supplanted by something equally brilliant: search. This is old news. We all know online advertising is the UK’s number two medium after TV (driven largely by search). We also know that Google makes less profit than WPP Group, but is capitalised many times more highly.

But search will play an increasingly important role in terrestrial media. Consumers are firmly in charge in the digital space, and like the sensation. More than half of all online purchases start at a search engine. More than two-thirds of all searches end in an offline purchase. The Web works particularly well for high-interest and high-information brands. Not surprisingly it has also become the focal point for two areas of particular importance for people – finding a job and friends.

At this point it is only fair to point out that there is a good deal of interruption in the online world as well. The nearly 50% of digital spend that isn’t search consists of interruption stimuli, designed to persuade users to deviate from the brand they were originally interested in.

So given this recently acquired habit of using search to enhance our chances of finding exactly what we want, why would we want to stay at the mercy of the interruption model in the terrestrial world? It isn’t as if the idea of search is a new one. Noticeboards in newsagents and paper directories have been around for years – and they work pretty well. As do listings in the press – built largely around special interests. We don’t buy magazines just for the editorial; ads are part of the package.

Online and offline media are increasingly seen by consumers as part of the same ecosystem. TV is intrinsically interesting and entertaining. It still has outstanding stature and reach. It still works because of media planners’ targeting skills. It still delivers value for money thanks to the combined skills of channel owners and media buyers. It has the capacity to tell us we want something, and to endow brands with extra appeal and authority. But in categories such as white goods, financial services, holidays, consumer electronics and cars, there is a significant propensity for consumers to research the options online and buy a different brand to the one they had in mind. Equally in these categories and other key sectors (such as furniture and DIY products) buying offline only happens for most people after they have cased the joint online.

The search principle also applies to content – with music and video content, podcasts and vodcasts attracting an unfathomable volume of downloads. Mobile devices have aggregated with computers to maximise the importance of this – and three-way convergence (TV, computers and broadband telecoms) means that single bigger screens are growing as fast as tiny ones.

So how could it work with offline search? How about using regular slots and holdings (TV bumpers, cinema breaks, poster sites) in the way you would a newsagent’s noticeboard, or broadcast listings to advertise commercials as well as programmes? You could advertise online content offline or devise new-style co-op retail and point-of-purchase advertising to direct traffic to websites. In reverse, you could advertise TV spectaculars online and publicise major DM activity in advance on the website.

This is just scratching the surface. Hopefully you will read this and think of half a dozen ideas yourself.

David Wethey, chairman, Agency Assessments International

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