The Online Essays: Chris Ward

MSN's Chris Ward marvels at the progress online advertising has made the year digital came of age, but warns that the industry must not rest on its laurels.

"I want £4 million on TV, a medium-weight national six-sheet campaign, and another £500,000 into print."

Oh, online, where was online? Five years ago, those were common words in planning agency meeting rooms. Online marketing was forgotten and then tagged on the end of a campaign as an afterthought because: "We have to be on the web."

With little thought for context, creativity or call to action, little wonder most of these campaigns failed to inspire.

But that was then. Today, a new wave of optimism is sweeping through the industry, as more and more brands prove time and time again the effectiveness of digital marketing. With new creative solutions and a new determination to prove our worth, we're finally seeing digital advertising establish a unique and respected position in the marketing mix.

There's no doubt this transition out of awkward adolescence into a more self-assured maturity is a cause for celebration.

But let's not get carried away. Let's make the most of the transition by stepping back to learn from experience.

When online marketing took its first steps, companies were neither strategic nor creative. They advertised merely to have a web presence. Hold on - when did you last book TV without rigorously researching the message, the audience and the creative? No surprise, therefore, that these poorly planned campaigns delivered disappointing results. Luckily, there were enough pioneers and believers to see us through these faltering first steps. We all owe a debt of gratitude to brands such as Egg, Mercedes and Virgin for believing in the medium and seeing it as more than a passing fad.

Their "in it for the long run" approach inspired the industry to mature and create more tailored approaches, more creative solutions and more rigorous reporting. This more considered approach paid dividends. In our view, 2003 was the year online marketing came of age.

Over the past 12 months, we've seen some of the most creative and targeted campaigns to date. Remember L'Oreal's online BeautyLive magazine, Busted's sticker album or Nestle Smarties leaving a trail of chocolate treats across your screen wherever your mouse went?

And I'm not the only one who recognises this new quality. According to the latest MSN Online Pulse, 75 per cent of the country's top 500 brand managers cited at least one example of outstanding online advertising in the past few months - more than double the result just nine months before.

Is this enough? No, of course not. We're the new kids on the block. It's not enough to simply be as creative as other media, we have to "go beyond" and prove our worth.

So what's the magic ingredient that distinguishes us from TV, print, radio, bus sides, tube tickets, sandwich bags, you name it? What's the "X-factor" that will convince brand managers we're a "must have" not just an "I might as well have"? For me, the keys are intimacy and interactivity.

Intimacy because online marketing is not about broadcasting messages to a passive, homogenous audience on the sofa or a cinema seat just "watching".

Interactivity because online marketing is about engaging an individual in a close, active environment.

Let's look at Columbia TriStar, one of MSN's standout partners. Columbia Tri-Star knows its customers, and has recognised the power of connecting with them in a highly personal and interactive environment.

It also knows that trailers sell movies, so using new Flash Talking technology, it is streaming 30-second movie clips straight into personal MSN Hotmail accounts. No surfing, no download time, no waiting. Double click to open the e-mail and you're watching the latest Hollywood has to offer. Like what you see? Forward it straight to a friend so they can see it too. And because web-based e-mail such as MSN Hotmail offers micro-targeting credentials, Columbia TriStar knows it's reached 1.7 million 15- to 24-year-old males. For the recent campaign advertising the movie Bad Boys 2, 67 per cent of those that were served the trailers watched them to the very end. That's intimate. That's interactive.

So if online advertising is achieving these kind of results through intimate and creative connections, why the need for further education? Because when asked in MSN's Online Pulse what would most persuade them to plan more online advertising over the next six months, 20 per cent of people wanted more creativity, and 20 per cent new formats. Yet amazingly, nearly half (48 per cent) of media planners and buyers were not aware of options such as Instant Messenger and how they can be used as an advertising vehicle.

Just after these MSN Online Pulse results, in November last year, we launched a campaign to engage creative agencies with MSN Messenger 6.

Many of these communications-driven, technically savvy people use Instant Messaging services themselves as part of their everyday work and social lives.

But very few had applied their own online behaviour and preferences to that of the consumers they target.

Via the campaign, we were able to communicate these business benefits of MSN Messenger 6. As a result, 80 per cent of our target audience signed up to MSN Messenger. And we're already seeing some business results from the activity - with more brands coming to us requesting solutions such as the MSN Messenger work we did for the likes of Coke and 02.

We're looking forward to the next set of MSN Online Pulse results to see how much industry awareness and perception of these hot-off-the-press ad formats has changed.

So our challenge as an industry for 2004 is to continue to educate. We need to surf the wave of optimism around digital marketing and continue to foster creative online campaigns that allow brands to reach their customers in an engaging and intimate way.

That way online advertising might just make it to the front of that planning sentence, rather than an afterthought tagged on after the full stop.

Chris Ward is the commercial director of MSN UK.

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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).