NEW MEDIA: SITE OF CREATIVITY - Advertising faces a completely new challenge in the way it talks - and listens - to web consumers. John Naughton reports

For the advertising industry, cyberspace is a discomfort zone. It

slipped in under the radar, and has been a growing - and baffling -

threat ever since. Like most of their industrial clients, advertisers

were slow to appreciate the significance of the web, and as a result

much of the early advertising on the medium was done by low-status

companies of amateurs. And it showed, with naff animated gifs, snake-oil

hucksterism and brain-dead banner ads that slowed page downloads to a

trickle.



Even when online ads evinced a glimmer of intelligence, it was often

with the cunning of the trickster rather than the creative ingenuity of

the artist.



Remember those banner ads with scroll bars or close boxes replicating

functional elements of the Windows interface? Every so often one would

be fooled into clicking on them - more out of instinct than judgment -

only to be transported to some unexpected (and usually unwanted) segment

of cyberspace. The first time that happened one might grin sardonically,

much as tourists half-applaud the mendacious ingenuity of street urchins

in Naples. But the second time ...



Mainstream advertising has up to now accorded the net a low creative

status - much as it did radio advertising a decade ago. The creative

juices of the industry still flow to where they have always gone - to

television and display advertising in its various forms. The problem is

that these forms are inextricably bound up with 'push' media - where a

small number of content providers decide what is to be produced and then

push it at relatively passive consumers down a limited number of

channels.



The thing about the web is that it is exactly the opposite - a 'pull'

medium. Nothing (apart from e-mail) comes to you from the web unless you

explicitly identify it and pull it down to your browser across the net.

This radically changes the rules of engagement for advertisers, because

it gives real power to the consumer. And because the barriers to entry

to cyberspace - whether as publisher or trader - are so low, the number

of content providers is growing almost exponentially.



The result is a community of 400-plus million people who can instantly

go elsewhere at the click of a mouse, and who have a cornucopia of

options from which to choose.



The advertising industry built its expertise on putting seductive

messages in places where people cannot avoid them. And as a result,

advertisers initially tried to replicate in cyberspace what had worked

so well for so long in what John Perry Barlow memorably called

'meatspace'.



The result was the ubiquitous banner ad, that infuriating rectangle

consuming valuable screen real estate at the top of a web page. The

brain-dead business model underpinning this idea was that if you built a

site that attracted millions of eyeballs, then those page-requests could

be turned into revenue by selling advertising space on the site. Users

could not avoid the ads - so you could be sure they would see them; and

a proportion of them would 'click through' to the advertiser's site,

where they would - hopefully - buy something.



This theory sustained countless business plans but, alas, it didn't

work.



For one thing, most web users dislike banner ads and adopt all kinds of

strategies to avoid them - even downloading free programs such as

AdBlocker and WebWasher, which filter out banners before they reach the

browser.



And because the web is a pull medium, avoidance strategies can be very

effective.



Secondly, it turns out that click-through rates are much lower than

originally anticipated. This has led the industry to conclude that

banner ads are less effective than conventional ones. The truth is more

complicated and may have something to do with the fact that online

advertising is the first genre for which we can have precise metrics of

consumer response.



If there were correspondingly accurate measurements of consumer response

to billboard or TV advertising, we might find they were even less

effective.



As Barrie Cree, the solutions director of Zenith Interactive, says:

'Nobody says a poster campaign was dreadful because 99 per cent of the

people who drove past it didn't stop their car, read it and take the

message in.'



Faced with the discovery that traditional methods don't work on the web,

the advertisers are uncertain about what to try next. The majority seem

to be adopting what one might call a World War One strategy: if at first

you don't succeed, fail again. Recently the Internet Advertising Bureau,

a trade body for web publishers, announced guidelines for even bigger

and more intrusive banners - including a big 336x280 pixel shape which

appears right bang in the middle of a page. Another format, dubbed the

'skyscraper', will be a 160x600 pixel block on the page.



The new online ad formats represent a semi-comatose response to the

challenge of this new medium. A better strategy would be to try to

figure out how the distinctive features of the web and the wider

internet might be harnessed for advertising. Instead of fighting the

wave, why not ride it?



In a push-media world, advertising became the channel through which

companies addressed their customers. But it was a one-way conversation.

The thing about the net is that it not only enables companies to talk to

their customers individually, but also that it enables customers to talk

back. This is a fantastic business opportunity. The trouble is that most

companies have got out of the habit of listening. Maybe listening is the

most useful thing advertisers could do in the internet age.



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1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).