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Think of Web Ads as Signposts

by Zsolt Kerekes, editor of StorageSearch.com

Fantastic audio visual ad with pretty people and smiling faces gets to the punchline:- click to enter Slough...

Hold on a second. Reality check. Do you really want to go there?

What comes to your mind when you see a signpost to Slough?

For me it's the stink of this UK Berkshire town's sewage works as I drive past it as fast as possible on the M4 motorway.

John Betjeman exhorted German bombers in WW2 with his poem which began Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough

More recently the BBC tv series - The Office uses Slough as the backdrop for its parody of soul-less office life.

Imagine being tasked with designing a web advertising campaign to get more people to visit Slough. Even the best crafted ad can't change the long established negative brand image of this detination. Do you really want to go there?

That's the problem (and challenge) with web ads in general.

Making the ad believable and giving sane rational readers a credible reason to go there and see what lies at the end of the click.

Most advertisers don't understand that. And that's why their ads don't work as well as they should.

As a publisher we've been very fortunate over the years, getting a good flow of new advertisers, while keeping most of our long established ones. The new ones sometimes present a problem, because the first contact we have is when they place the order.

They've seen our web site and know what we do. But when we look at their web site, it's not always clear what their main strengths are and which way they are heading. We need to know this, and communicate it to our readers for their advertising to work. That's an interesting process, and one of the satisfactions I get is helping our customers see themselves through the eyes of a potential buyer.

I've been selling web advertising since 1996, which is nearly as long as the industry itself has existed. When I'm asked "What is web advertising?" or "What can web advertising do?" my answer today is pretty much the same as it was six years ago when I figured it out based on my own experience as a buyer and seller. (In those days we advertised a lot on search-engines - although we don't any more.) My answer to those questions has nothing to do with banner ads, pop ups or any other visual artifice.

You should think of web advertising as signposting.

A potential customer can buy products like yours from thousands of different companies. Whatever motivates them to look on the web for information about products or suppliers is not important. Maybe they're unhappy with their supplier. Maybe they need to do some research to to keep their boss happy with a few facts for his budget. Maybe they have a budget approved and need to place an order today. Maybe they're looking for a new job. It doesn't matter. It's the fact they're looking that's important. That's your opportunity to make it easier and quicker for them to become aware of you and what you do, compared to the thousands of other companies in your market segment.

That's it.

The signposting should give a concise and accurate idea of what they can expect to find when they get there with that precious click. What happens after that, is another matter. But creating awareness of your site as a possible destination before they plan to travel there, is very important. Leaving the signposts permanently visible and easy to find is also important. They may not want to go there today, but they need to know that when they have that need, they can easily find the signpost again.

That's why short term on-again off-again advertising is a waste of money.

Say you advertise on a portal for a couple of months. Thousands of readers see your ad, but maybe they don't have a need to buy your product just yet. Then your advertising budget runs out so your stop advertising for 3 months. But readers are still going back to those portals. Someone saw information about your company but they can't remember the details. They know that they saw your ads on their favorite portal. But when they go back they can't find you. Shoot. Well, that's a disappointment, but there are other suppliers and a few minutes research will take them somewhere else. And the number two choice also does the job. You were the number one choice they would have explored. But you removed the signpost. And, unlike print, the web has no memory for your past ads.

So - web advertising doesn't necessarily sell your product. A banner ad is not going to sell a million dollar solid state disk system for example. But it tells buyers where they can go. And following the signposts is faster than just drifting aimlessly around.Your potential customers don't have time to waste on undirected supplier research. They follow the well worn grooves on the map, which are the roads that others have travelled down the web before. There's no point in you developing a good destination, if you make it hard to find.

Customers want to buy stuff. You just have to make it easy. That's all there is to it.


...Later - footnotes:- this article was published on MarketingViews March 7, 2003. In the original header I used the example of Basingstoke - which is a yukky characterless modern town nearest to where I was living at the time. But Slough suits the mood better. The main article text hasn't been changed.

...Later -In 2004 - Irma Zavaleta at University of Texas at Austin - School of Information created a great powerpoint presentation called Web Ads & Advertising (ppt) which included a reference back to this article. Her article is extremely good. Due to my own doziness - I only noticed this fact 4 years later in October 2008. But good concepts are timeless as well as priceless.

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