Thursday, August 28, 2008

Finding the right answers, part 2: Ad Networks, Search, and Word of Mouse

Just as the destination is less important than the journey we take to get there, finding the right answers sometimes means we'll just discover better questions.

First post on the question here, second post on the answers, part 1 here. And so the question we pick up is "How do you reach people where they are spending 90% of their visits online?"

Ad networks are an advertising answer.

(Click to enlarge)

As seen in the chart above, the major ad networks reach most of the online population, though frequency and the unique visitors are sometimes called into question as valid proxies for audience measurement.

A typical web user’s total monthly habit of 105 sites and 2300 page views means that the total likely monthly inventory for all online universe is 437Billion impressions (assuming 1 impression per page view). This would require all 50 of the top 50 ad networks to serve an average 100 impressions per user per month to use the available inventory (which grows daily).

No single online ad network is capable of delivering reach AND frequency. And covering every ad network is financially impractical.

In general, display advertising (i.e., banners) struggles to efficiently reach online audiences with sufficient frequency to support its awareness/branding mission (Clicks are generally not a role that banners fuflfill well--they aren't sold on that basis for a reason--and we won't even mention the triple challenges of banner blindness, intrusiveness, and falling CPM rates).

Search advertising is another answer. Search is more about engagement than reach because it has the potential to reach the greatest number of online prospects in terms that they use to define themselves (through the dialogue of the search query) essence making a frequency of "1" ideal. But search does nothing for those who already know where they are going.

Word of mouse is a 3rd approach for those who know what they want and where to get it. Meeting these folks and getting a few of them to carry the message to the many, or at least a few more, requires more individualized approaches via blogs, discussion boards or social networks. (the term 'viral' is probably not the best way to reference this type of approach online for all the obvious connotations). Again, a frequency of 1 would be ideal.

So for this circular journey of three posts, the right answer to the question is itself an honest couple of questions to ask repeatedly: "If everyone is online, does a media consumption index matter?" and "If frequency doesn't matter--or isn't definable--online, how will success be measured?"

The approaches for reach are: the traditional model (via banner ad networks), the search model (via, um, search engine marketing) and word of mouse (direct engagement).

For more on targetted online placement, demographics and online research, you may want to check out this post on Google's AdPlanner which seems to be sowing the seeds of do-it-yourself online planning.

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