sxc marketing

Is digital a hopeless medium?

Posted on: July 29, 2008

Can online ever pack the same emotional punch as television advertising? Here are six obstacles that stand in the way.

McDonalds recently brought back its Big Mac jingle as a MySpace UGC contest, while Klondike and Burger King made similar moves. Is Madison Avenue out of ideas, or is there a deeper, cultural force that marketers are trying to tap into? Are online advertising and user-generated content really more about riffing off established ideas rather than starting from scratch?

In this three-part X Factor, I tackle some fundamental problems with branding online and show why we may all be doomed as an advertising medium if we are not careful.

In part 1, I’ll discuss the major differences between digital and the most emotive of offline forces — television — and talk about why its ability to brand is far superior to anything we have devised digitally. In part 2, I will explain why McDonalds, Klondike and Burger King are poised to tap their brand history in ways other brands can’t, and which types of brands should be leveraging user-generated content to augment, rather than brand. In part 3, I will introduce a way to avoid being stuck in a direct response world online, and offer a relatively simple dual-formula approach you can use to get your programs on track, use the online medium effectively and start to break down the barriers consumers face in adopting your brand.

Television vs. online for branding
Ok, let’s establish one thing first. None of us know what we’re doing. The problem is not just Madison Avenue and the offline luddites who ignored digital for too long and now pitch their high-cost, low-impact, award-designed work to clients. Everyone in digital is the problem. Ok, I’ll be a little nicer to you all. None of you are the real problem. It’s our medium itself that is the problem; and the available advertising opportunities are the biggest barriers to creating the impact that every digital marketer envisions.

Problem 1: lean back vs. lean forward.
Television is a “lean back” medium. What I mean by that is you sit back and the content gets delivered to you. It is “passive consumption.” In a passive consumption medium, the user’s grey matter, that lump of flesh on top of your neck, is more receptive to advertising.

The internet, on the other hand, is a “lean forward” medium. The majority of consumption online is a quest to get to an end-goal — an informational tidbit. The internet is merely the conduit to it. The way you consume during that journey and your receptivity to advertising during that process determines the “annoyance factor” of online advertising. Online ads are roadblocks, speed bumps, mosquitoes buzzing in your ear that distract you on the journey to your end goal. We watch television to be entertained and have information “delivered” to us. We go online to seek out information and “fetch” it. A lean-back medium is one in which the cognitive brain takes a back seat to the emotional input. It is a slow absorption, and those emotions build up as the story unfolds. Because the context remains consistent during a television program, the interruption of a commercial has more of an impact. It jolts the mind. Online is a flit-flit-flit medium of constantly changing context and imagery. The context itself — the background noise to the advertising — is constantly in flux and thus often drowns out the advertising.

Problem 2: Long-form sensory immersion limbic impact vs. short-term cortex non-cognitive consumption.
This mumbo-jumbo means that, as a passive consumptive medium, television has the ability to stir highly powerful emotions in us. Highly emotional states secure an experience within the neural pathways in your brain, enabling you to recall that experience in a powerful way.

The user may not even be aware of the connection, but when a really powerful commercial hits us, be it “I want to be a yes man” from Monster, “Where’s the beef?” from Wendy’s, “I’d like to teach the world to sing” from Coke or even “What would you do for a Klondike bar?” that impact subconsciously makes us recall those jingles, songs and phrases. When you think of them in your brain, even silently, your hear them. “Where’s the beef?” is not said as a deadpan copy line; it’s “Where’s the Beef?” Those emotive, high impact phrases transcend the medium.

And it is not just positive emotional impact that makes connections. HeadOn’s “HeadOn, apply it directly to the forehead” produces annoyance and a jittery feeling throughout my body. I tense up and want to punch the television. But, for new product introductions, especially for a product that has a different application method, those emotions are powerful. Many marketers mistake hating an ad for hating a product. I may hate the ad and it may annoy every small fiber in my body, but anger and hate are powerful emotions. I hate the commercial, but the product? Eh, I know what it does, so when the need for it or another headache medicine arises, I may give it a try.

When ads reach this level of resonance they become memes and propagate throughout society like a virus, transcending the television medium via word-of-mouth transference. In other words, free advertising. When’s the last time you had an emotional reaction to an online ad? Online ads rarely impact the limbic system, but remain as cognitive cortex thoughts. You take in the information, which is good, but it lacks the emotional resonance. You can repeat back those tidbits of information as facts, but again, the emotional connection to the brand is missing. It is the difference between saying, “that online ad made me laugh,” (a cortex statement) and “that television ad gave me a warm feeling inside, and then made my body shiver,” (a limbic statement). Connecting advertising to the limbic feelings in the consumer’s body is more likely with media like television, which impacts the senses in an immersive fashion, thereby aiding recall.

Problem 3: Interruptive vs. peripheral
Television is an interruptive advertising medium. The content surrounds the commercial break, but does not intrude on it.

The majority of online is advertising is peripheral in nature — existing on the same page as the content being consumed.

The difference is that we are receptive to interruptive advertising in lean-back, passive consumption mediums, but not in lean-forward, active consumption ones.

A consumer’s annoyance with interruptive forms of advertising increases with the degree of active consumption, and it is this discrepancy that most marketers ignore at their own peril. Interruptive techniques can be used very effectively online, but be careful to acknowledge the consumer’s mindset when doing so. Orbitz is a prime example of this. Its use of pop-unders as an entertainment distraction helped it brand without cramming an informational message down consumers’ throats.

Problem 4: Content vs. entertainment
Television is primarily an entertainment medium, not an informational one. Granted, The Discovery Channel, TLC and other channels do a good job of expanding what we know about the planet and people on it, but their audiences are small compared to the dullards who watch “American Idol.” These people are being entertained, not educated. Well, unless they look deeper and see the educational value of… uh… ummm… uhhhh… crap, I’m trying, but there’s nothing deeper to learn there.

Entertainment media are passively consumed, while informational ones are actively consumed. This puts the most common forms of online advertising at a distinct disadvantage.

Problem 5: Shared vs. solo experiences
Get your mind out of the gutter. This is serious. The communal nature of television means it is often a shared experience, as opposed to the singular consumption model of the internet. You often watch TV in groups, but when is the last time you sat at a computer in a group to share the experience? You usually just fire off an email. The information is shared, but at disparate moments.

The shared aspect of television creates a communal bond with the viewers. Appointment television, like sporting events, create high emotional context and group-think imprinting, as opposed to individualistic consumption (due to the highly euphoric limbic nature of consumption). And even though the actual consumption of television can be singular (you may watch television alone at night) the shared aspects of key water-cooler programs (“Lost,” “American Idol,” etc.) heighten the emotional impact during consumption. Even though you are alone, the consumption is being shared with like-minded individuals. Texts, calls and IMs of “Did you just see that?!” happen in this medium, but are largely absent on the internet. The IM is the conduit of that message, not the emotional messenger.

Problem 6: The cost and the tipping point
I often hear the argument about the high cost of television advertising in comparison to online. I hear it, but that doesn’t mean it’s a valid statement or I agree with it for branding. It is a factual statement: “A television commercial costs more to produce than a banner.” Television is more expensive — vastly so — on the production end. However, it has some unique advantages over online.

Once a commercial is produced, it takes fewer resources to scale it for mass reach. It can be tested locally and, if it gains relevance, expanded nationally with increased money and media planning. The traffic requirements alone make online scaling an often arduous process, unless you are scaling within individual properties, which often limits the market and opportunity. Most brands cannot afford television, and those that can’t usually adapt their marketing process over the years with guerilla PR efforts and word of mouth. Those brands do the best job utilizing online and UGC practices for branding because they were never reliant on the emotional impact of television to begin with.

The problem for most companies that can afford TV advertising is that they often approach the two media the same way. How many 15-second TV spots just get adapted for pre- and mid-roll within video content? Why? Because it’s easy.

These brands also fail when they spend massive amounts on use banners, believing that if they invest the dollars, the cost advantages of online and the millions of impressions will be cumulative. Nothing could be further from the truth. The temporary nature of online advertising means it dissipates quickly, and so you are filling a bucket with a leaky bottom.

There is a point at which the combination of the impact made by the creative and the saturation of that advertising is either going to reach a tipping point or not. (I can’t believe I just used that phrase. Damn you Malcolm Gladwell!) In some cases, no amount of online advertising will achieve a tipping point, for it is transient in nature. In time, the closer the impression count, the more impact. It is a balancing act to find the impression over time that has the most impact. With all the previously mentioned issues, it is much harder to create an emotional resonance leading to positive brand recall by only using online, therefore making it more difficult to create buzz that breaks through.

What leads us all to the brands we use — that first brand touch — is often the powerful, emotionally-resonating force that keeps us with that brand, and that emotive force is often television. Television has an advantage when imprinting that first brand meme. For online advertising, including UGC, leveraging past assets of existing brand resonance with consumers is much more efficient and productive than trying to gain brand relevance around a new concept or idea. Brands not on TV have long found ways to get their product and message into consumers’ hands by using guerilla methods. How are you going to figure out how to use the branding your television has been imparting on consumers using online? And what if you don’t do any television? Can you still leverage stuff that has been sitting in your brand attic?

Next week I tackle what McDonalds, Klondike and Burger King are doing, and why they have an advantage.

ranty rant signing off…

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