It’s happening. Slowly, but eventually, it’ll be widespread. Online editions of some of our favourite newspapers are going behind a paywall. It makes sense: they have to break even, and it’s getting harder. So the New York Times, which has enjoyed a considerable online readership but a significant dip in print subscriptions, is soon only going to be available to those who are willing to pay for the privilege. In a way, it’s how it should be, though I can’t help but feel that they missed the mark when it came to online advertising.
Let’s backtrack a little.
When I worked as a copywriter with a major travel agency, the sharpest thorn in my side was no doubt wielded by our media buyer. She and I rarely worked together directly, but her reckless media bookings often put me in a position where I had to create an ad for an audience that simply wouldn’t be at its most receptive. Once, I even had to combine Asia and South America, as general destinations, in one ad. “What’s the problem?” she said. “You’re the writer. Just do it!”
And I did. Awkwardly, but I did. Then it dawned on me that we had it backwards. She shouldn’t be telling me what to create; I should be telling her what space to buy, and where, and when. In advertising, creatives don’t just put the ads together. We take cues from the audience, the potential medium and the medium’s potential to stage a strategic dialogue. So really, creatives are in an ideal position to tell sales departments what to sell and how to sell it.
This isn’t news. You can see that this is the kind of conversation sales departments are having with advertisers right now, simply because some ads are clearly so mindful of where they are and who they’re talking to. It’s why a designer ad in American Vogue will mimic the fantasy of a Grace Coddington spread, but won’t in the U.K. edition that same month.
Yet when it comes to advertising on the web, it’s shocking how the whole team – creatives, sales and advertisers – can’t seem to apply the same principles. Advertising is most effective when it’s part of the experience people are already having with a medium. If we use Vogue as an example again, a majority of the ads look like they could have been produced by the magazine’s art team. In Wired, you’ll often find ads that simulate the quirky, interactive design of their front-of-book pieces. So when you’re flipping through the pages, you might be fully aware that you’re reading an ad, but at least it’s speaking your language.
On the web, creatives and advertisers both seem to draw a blank. More often than not, they opt for a banner ad that nobody’s going to click on, which is something I’ve seen even on the New York Times website. Thing is, nobody was clicking on banner ads and pop-ups in the early days of the dot.com boom, so it’s surprising that it’s still being used today. Yet it’s not an easy equation to figure out, because the answer isn’t the same for everybody, and the answer changes depending on the website you advertise on.
Where print and outdoor advertising are ideal for a more subtle approach, the web is perfect for straightforward messaging. The immediate nature of the medium means you should get to the point, and quickly. Do it right, and you’ll have people clicking directly to your site. Do it effectively, and it’ll lead directly to sales (something that’s always been difficult to track in traditional advertising).
It’s a simple matter of figuring out where and when people are already looking for your product. Trip Advisor does this well. As a user, you’re only going there for one reason: to find a hotel that’s gotten decent “peer” reviews. Once you’re on the site, Trip Advisor generates ads that vary from specials to suggestions, and are wholly relevant to your search entry. Using Trip Advisor’s templates, the ads are integrated into your interaction with the website and are actually quite useful to you during your experience. I think it’s also notable that Trip Advisor spent a lot of time and money developing such a smart search engine.
None of this means that good creative has to be tossed aside. There’s a place for it too, so long as there’s a sound strategy behind it. I’ve seen this on Perez Hilton a few times, and here, we’re looking at decent examples of awareness campaigns. Though Dirty Sexy Money became an unfortunate casualty of the Writers’ Strike, marketers for the program were brave enough to experiment with new territory. They inserted ads on Perez Hilton that looked like the blogger’s own gossip entries. Though the DSM posts were differentiated with a yellow background and the word “advertisement” on the bottom right corner, the periodic entries treated the fictional Darling family as one that garnered as many scandalous headlines as Lindsay Lohan. In some cases, the ads even featured Perez Hilton’s distinctive MS Paint scrawlings.
Perez Hilton’s site background is also up for grabs. Though the results vary, when Mariah Carey’s marketers used it to plaster her new album cover, Perez looked like a sell-out and the singer seemed like a good sport. What made this effective, I think, was that people going to Perez Hilton already had a relationship with Mariah based on the blogger’s constant remarks about her oddball behaviour or questionable sobriety. So here, we have editorial content weaving its way into the ad campaign, if in a tongue-in-cheek manner. And this is the sort of thing that media buyers aren’t always aware of, but that creatives tend to look for.
Not that I believe news sites should rely on the advertising model to rake in revenue. But if online subscriptions don’t pan out, these sites may find themselves re-evaluating more efficient advertising campaigns. I don’t think the answer is to embed marketing messages in editorial content (at least, not more than they already are). Instead, news sites, or even blogs, should seriously consider what it is that their readers are already looking for, and find companies that can enhance the experience for the reader. When readers click, it signals relevance. When they don’t, it’s because they’re being advertised to. People ignore most ads on TV, in print, and on a highway. Why would it be any different online?