Skip to content
November 25, 2008 / davebirss

Just like real life but with pixels


Over the past few months I’ve found myself telling people over and over again that the internet is not a channel. It isn’t a bespoke discipline like advertising or PR or DM. It’s all of these things. In fact, it’s best to think of the internet as a pixelated reflection of the real world.

So to make it easier to get your mind around this web business, I’m comparing online activities to the marketing disciplines (and other real-world stuff) you’re already familiar with. Over the coming weeks I’ll then go through the different areas one by one, expanding on the descriptions and sharing my thoughts on how to approach them.

Press and Poster Advertising
The online equivalent of this is obviously banners. They are paid media placements that appear within other people’s content. Like their offline cousins they need to be concise, eye-grabbing and on-strategy to work. And, like press and posters, they are also ignored by most people. There are some more attention-grabbing formats – but they’re intrusive and generally piss people off if they’re not used well. As our computers have got more powerful and our web connections have got zippier, the possibilities have increased. When I write the guide to banners I’ll explain more about flash animation, video banners, rich media, interactivity, expanding formats, banners that talk to each other, data capture and other things. But, if you want inspiration in the meantime, you could do worse than have a browse around what other people are doing with banners at bannerblog.

TV ads
Video banners don’t fit into this category. They fit in the one above. You see, it’s not about the fact that you’re using video – it’s about context. TV ads are linear. They appear in a sequence on a timeline and you can’t avoid them (or, at least, that’s the intention). Video banners appear in parallel to other content. The closest thing to TV ads are pre and post roll spots on other videos – most commonly on news sites and other professional content sites. In this case, you have to sit through them to get to what you actually wanted to see. I think there are a few issues with them that unfortunately neither the media owners or the people who buy the spots seem to care about. I’m looking forward to ranting about them in the near future.

In the same way as TV ads and print publications accept sponsorship, so do websites. It can be done in a nasty crass way or it can be done with subtlety and taste. And what it entails depends on the deal between the media provider and advertiser. Obviously, the more relevant the advertiser is to the content, the better the deal will work for everybody.

Magazine inserts
I think the online equivalent of this kind of marketing detritus is popups. It looked as if we were getting rid of popups for good a couple of years ago – but they seem to be making a bit of a comeback. A file-sharing site I used the other day gave me a grand total of four unwelcome advertising windows – and I’m regularly being asked to take surveys (and as you can probably tell, I’m not very good at sharing my opinions). At least with the offline equivalent you can shake your magazine by its spine and leave the crap on the newsagent’s floor.

Let’s not be kind here – the online equivalent is spam. You get a mass, impersonal message that you don’t really want and you usually throw it in the bin without opening it. At least spam has a slightly lower carbon footprint and your email program can filter most of it out for you.

Direct Mail
People think this is obviously email and newsletters – but it’s actually a pretty loose similarity because of the restrictions of the media and how the user engages with it. When you’ve only got 5 or 6 words to try to entice someone to open your correspondence, you’re not going to have a very big strike rate. At least with DM you’ve got a bit more theatre in the reveal of your message.

Getting your stories into the right publications is just as important online. Most big magazines have a web version anyway – and the majority of their articles make it to their site. Then there’s web-only publishers and bloggers too. With new outlets come new opportunities and risks – it’s much easier to be badmouthed online. And I’m sure that reputation management is going to be a growth area in the very near future.

I suppose the equivalent of stunts would be virals and contagious websites. Just talking about ‘viral’ makes me screw up my face like I’m sucking on a lemon. It’s become such a cliché and so many people have done it so badly. It really feels like the time has passed for viral films. Contageous websites, on the other hand, still have a place. The whole point of any of this stuff is to get people talking and passing your creation on to their friends and colleagues. But the more sales message and branding you try to put in, the less likely they are to be passed around. And most clients find that hard to justify.

Buzz marketing

The area of trying to get social influencers to talk about your product or brand is alive and well online. They call it ‘Blogger Outreach’. You have to know what you’re doing because it’s very easy to piss bloggers off. (NOTE: If any Blogger Outreach folks are reading this, please be aware that I’m more than happy to receive offers of luxury foreign holidays, gadgets and guitars as long as you don’t expect me to return anything afterwards!)

Noticeboards and Newsagents’ Windows
The community message boards online are the likes of Craig’s List, Gumtree and Freecycle. They’ve got a huge audience, are split into geographic areas, divided into interest groups and they’re teeming with people who are looking for something. I think there’s probably more potential for marketers here than they realise.

Film Club / Gun Club / Michael Bolton Fanclub

The web is an absolute haven for special interest obsessives. Whatever strange niche you’re looking for, it won’t be too hard to find hardcore aficionados hanging out in forums and fansites. Some Web 2.0 sites fall into this too – Flickr is a community amateur photographers and MySpace is a community of (mainly unsigned) bands.  These people have very strict etiquette in their digital domains and god help you if you put a foot wrong. However, if you’re respectful and relevant to these audiences, you may just be welcomed with open arms.

Point of Sale
Online is a big portion of retail sales now – I think it accounts for about 20% of all  sales in the UK now. So POS is going to be an important area for brands. The equivalent of this is contextual and highly targeted ads. If you look at Kelkoo or Pricerunner, you’ll find ads on a search page. Many of these ads are relevant to your search. Online supermarkets also tell you about related products, special offers and remind you of things you may have missed during the checkout process. I can see this becoming an even more important growth area over time.

Sales Promotion
Coupons, BOGOFs and vouchers all exist online. If you do this stuff in the real world, it doesn’t take too much to start doing it online as well.

This online/offline parallel thing extends way beyond marketing – with  pyramid schemes, amusement arcades, casinos, circus freakshows, the hedge in the park where the big boys hide their rudie mags, pickpockets, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, train spotters, street entertainers and the guy who wanders around pubs trying to sell knock-off DVDs. But the whole point of this post is to stop people thinking of digital as a ‘thing’ but instead as an extension of everything else.


Leave a Comment
  1. chris / Nov 28 2008 10:44 am

    two thoughts on that:

    1- I don’t know of any sponsorship that really works and is scalable. salon is perpetually on the brink of shutting down and “sponsored rss feeds” the way kottke or daring fireball do it seem to only support one lone author at best. do you know any better examples?

    2- you are dead right about spam but there is a larger message hidden behind it. it’s that while we accept the passive delivery of messages in real life the same is not true online. this is a medium where giving the user something useful is king, added value. we have to make them want to come to us here. I think that’s why the ups widget was so big.


  1. New Media and Measurement « Feeling the Fear

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: