The potential of Web-based advertising is enormous, but a number of issues need to be addressed to attract advertiser on-line. Two Net advert standardisation efforts are currently underway in the US.
Just before Christmas, Digital Equipment gave hi-tech marketeers one of the best presents they could have hoped for when it reversed a previous policy decision and threw open its Alta Vista Internet search engine to those interested in advertising on the World Wide Web.
The decision was highly significant to the cause of the Internet advertising revolution. With an estimated 24 million hits a day, Alta Vista is one of the most heavily used pieces of Internet software available. But unlike rivals, such as Yahoo, Excite and Infoseek, Alta Vista was forbidden territory for third party Internet advertisers.
There were good reasons for this policy as far as Digital was concerned. Alta Vista was positioned in the Internet search engine market as one of the fastest offerings available, boasting that it could typically return search results in less than a second. It was feared that placing paid for ads on the screen would slow down this response time.
But advances in new technology have eased this concern, according to a Digital spokesman, who said that even with adverts, the company is confident that its search engine will still average out at around 0.7 seconds to collate information from a search.
More significantly the policy reversal will allow Digital to tap into the growing market for Web-based advertising at a time when a number of key decisions are being made about the future direction of this sector of the hi-tech marketing industry.
According to a slew of figures released by a number of US research groups towards the end of 1996, ad spending on the World Wide Web grew during 1996. The Internet Advertising Bureau predicted quarterly spending of around $157 million, while Jupiter Communications put the total spend for 1996 at over $300 million.
That?s still relatively small beer compared to annual ad revenues from traditional advertising mediums like print and broadcast media, but with Boston-based Forrester Research predicting a boom in Web ad spending to hit $2.27 billion by the turn of the century, it?s a business that it?s obviously worth tapping into at an early stage.
But there are a number of issues that have to be resolved before such figures become market reality. Few would question the potential of the Internet as a vehicle, but there are a number of practical considerations that need to be addressed before money currently spent on traditional advertising mediums makes its way into the coffers of the Internet service providers.
First up is the issue of knowing exactly what the audience is that your advert is reaching and measuring how effective those adverts are in holding attention and interest. Conventional advertising mediums have this one sorted out. On TV and radio, the ratings organisations will tell advertisers how many people watch or listen to any programme and give a broad picture of what demographic group they fall into. In print, circulation breakdowns provide similar information.
In practice it would actually be possible to produce highly detailed statistics about who accesses what and how long they stay on particular Web sites through a registration process at the server level. By analysing the domain of the Internet server used, it?s possible to find out whether access occured from the workplace or the home, which service provider was used and so on.
But there are privacy and data protection issues that come into play at once, making many suppliers reluctant to make users register at Web sites The result is that the best gauge on offer to ad buyers at present is to count the impressions, the number of times a user actually sees an advert. This does nothing to measure its effectiveness.
Christopher Hassett, chief executive officer of Internet content provider Point Cast, sees this a major factor contributing to the difficulty in making money from Internet advertising. But he does not believe that, for example, TV has an insurmountable advantage. ?You don?t know how many people actually see [TV] ads,? he notes. ?You don?t know whether they get up and leave when the commercial comes on?The ads go a screen and we can?t tell if somebody?s behind it.?
His argument is that the Internet necessitates users to click on Web sites to gain access to information, so at the very least you can tell how many people have looked at your advert. The problem is that there are too many third party auditors working to different measurement standards who are counting up and evaluating these clicks. Nor is there any standardisation about what questions are asked of users registering at a site. As such it is difficult, if not impossible, for ad buyers to compare like with like.
The emergence of these, typically small, audit firms is a matter of some concern to industry organisations like the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC). There is, they argue, an immediate conflict of interest created by the fact that some of these audit firms are paid by the site developers to count end user activity and disseminate that information to potential advertisers.
One firm that has been on the receiving end of such criticism is San Francisco-based Internet Profiles, which collects data and measures traffic from Web sites across the US. Its vice president of marketing, Stephen Klein, admits that the ABC regards having Internet Profiles auditing your web site to be comparable to allowing someone to mark their own exam paper.
But ironically it is Internet Profiles which has taken the lead in a major new standards initiative to produce an industry-wide method for collecting Web access information so that advertisers can compare the results from different sites. The company even abandoned work on its proprietary audit software I/Code.
Essentially a coalition of advertisers, audit groups and Web site providers got together in November in New York to find a way of getting everyone to ask the same questions in the same way. To date, the most likely option considered seems to be the idea of an ?extended log format? on the Web server. This would compile user profiles, data on which ads were seen and track a user?s route through a given Web site.
Before this becomes industry practice, concerns from civil liberties groups, like the Electronic Freedom Foundation, will have to be addressed. To date, no objections have been raised from that quarter, on the understanding that any standardised registration process will have to remain voluntary and that end users are made aware that personal data is being accumulated.
Meanwhile there are companies which are experimenting with other ideas for measuring use and improving the quaity of demographic information. For example, there is a growing school of thought that argues that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are the people to deal with online advertising, not the Web site developers.
ISPs, runs the argument, typically have access to postal or zip code information, an integral part of establishing demographic profiles in more conventional forms of direct marketing. ISPs who service particular regions would also seed the development of a localised advertising market for the Internet for smaller suppliers and companies who would not see sufficient return on investment from advertising globally.
A wackier notion comes from a US firm called Cybergold which is paying users to look at adverts on the Internet. Cybergold, which describes itself as an ?attention broker? promises to deliver targetted ads to people who have registered their interests. When they look at the ads, they are paid money. An interactive element to each ad means it is not possible simply to click through a series of ads and collect your reward: you have to prove you read them.
The other major problem for Internet advertisers is deciding what the ad should look like. Current Web sites are estimated to feature 90 different sizes of Web adverts. This can lead to additional time and expense for companies who have to change the shape of the same advert so that it can accommodate the properties of individual Web sites.
This issue is also being addressed in the US, where the Coalition for Advertising Supported Information and Entertainment (CASIE) and the Internet Advertising Bureau (IBA) have joined forces to produce a recommended set of nine banner advert sizes for use on Web sites. The nine sizes feature four variants of rectangular banner, a square banner, a vertical banner and three types of badge-style banner.
Between them, CASIE and the IBA represent some of the biggest ad agencies and clients in the US as well as most of the driving forces in the Web publishing industry. As such, although the nine suggested ad sizes are positioned as voluntary guidelines, they are likely to carry the weight of de facto standards. The money saved on redesigning ads for reasons of size should be able to be reallocated to allow agencies to create new campaign ideas instead of reformating existing ones.
These are only two of the issues that need to be addressed before Forrester?s heady predictions of a $2 billion a year industry are achieved. To date, they are being tackled in the US, but the global nature of the Net means that any standards activity is likely to impact on UK advertisers and marketeers before long. The revolution rolls on.
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