It's one of those trends slowly gaining traction among the digerati: "adjacency" (i.e. banner and display ads associated with content) is dead. Advertisers want social media and data-driven marketing; they want names and e-mails, or immersive brand-response advertising that aligns them with specific editorial (in some cases created by the advertisers themselves). Compared to all this, the blinking, shimmying, '90s-vintage banner ad can seem a little, well, pathetic.
Like a lot of things in life, there's some truth to this, but the on-the-ground reality is a little more complicated. Take recent efforts by the Hearst-owned Houston Chronicle to built out its Digital Synergy Packages, a service offering multi-platform marketing solutions to clients including Web and mobile landing pages, social media management, print and Web directory listings and press releases.
While not built around display advertising, the impetus for the service has less to do with a belief that display ads are dead than that they are simply not a priority for everyone. The Chronicle, and Hearst's newspapers generally, have been looking for opportunity in an increasingly fragmented media landscape in which small businesses see themselves squeezed between the expensive ad campaigns run by national and regional advertisers and the time and expense of pursuing an online and social media strategy.
"A few years ago life for small businesses wasn't terribly difficult. They could go out and buy yellow page ads—both display and listing—do some small local magazines and their ad needs were taken care of," says Sam Brown, vice president of digital advertising at the Houston Chronicle. "As the Internet came around a lot of them have for a variety of reasons not known how to attack it. … If you are a small business owner most of your time is spent at your small business. You are not sure how to take your yellow page and classified money and shift it to emerging media."
Enter the Chronicle, which offers Web page development and SEO, a presence on a variety of social media platforms as well as monitoring of Yelp, City Search and other consumer feedback sites. The all-in-one service has spurred changes to the newspaper's print editions, including more locally-focused editorial sections and expansion of entertainment guides and other special sections.
With digital alone, "you don't get the same lift that you do if your advertising message is optimized across a number of platforms," Brown says. "Print and display advertising still have a huge effect on what people search for online later in the day and later in the week. But we've created packages that for as little as $500 a month—sometimes less—allow small businesses to have one comprehensive program, one consultant point of purchase that allows them to pretty much get into the digital age while taking advantage of more traditional forms of media as well."
Directory-based systems and traditional display advertising is "still a core piece of our business and still something advertisers gravitate to," Brown says. "When you combine it with cost-effective digital solutions I think you start to have a very powerful and affordable marketing program."
The Ricochet Effect
The New York Times has found an interesting way to put display ads to work in the context of customers' increasingly sophisticated content strategies. Recognizing that links and references to third-party content are an important component of blogging and social media for many companies, the newspaper decided to create a service whereby an advertiser's display ad would always appear along with specific Times content. Advertisers who buy ad space associated with a particular article are provided a custom link that refers all traffic to an article with their ad.
"The original impetus behind it was we developed a visualization tool to watch how our content is shared in Twitter, called Cascade," explains Michael Zimbalist, vice president of research and development at The New York Times. "One of the things we observed in Cascade is a lot of our content is shared by brands, and by professionals and small businesses, and those brands have the capabilities of actually driving a lot of traffic.
"We knew that when people clicked on those links shared by brands and come back to our site, they would see whatever advertising was running on the page," he says. "It could have been from the brand's competitor, it could have been from a totally different category, and so Ricochet was a product that we set up to correct that problem and in the process give the brands a whole new way to use our content and our environment to communicate with their customers."
The Times' launch partner, SAP, illustrates well the type of company likely to appreciate Ricochet. With what Zimbalist calls a "well-developed global content strategy," SAP does extensive social media management and has established itself as a trusted source of information for its followers. Organizations such as SAP "often fill their content pipeline with media they create, but our product allows them to supplement their owned media strategy with professionally produced high-quality content from The New York Times Company," he says. "It actually makes their own content that they are releasing to these channels—whether it's produced by the brand or not—gain value."
The Times Company hopes to automate the service in the future by allowing customers to search content archives and select the content they want to use in Ricochet. Customers buy access to the custom link for a set period of time, during which they can share it across any of their owned media channels. This can include buys of up to a year, allowing advertisers to include links in packaging, limited edition products, videos or TV commercials.
Ricochet and Cascade were developed by the New York Times Company's Research & Development lab. Responding to those who say publishers should not be technologists, Zimbalist says they are good strategic investments.
"It represents a whole new revenue stream for us," he says. "I don't want to overstate that, because it's a brand- new product and we only have a handful of customers, but it's totally incremental—nothing that Ricochet does is cannibalistic to our other revenue lines. It does nothing to interfere with or cannibalize the ad sales on our website or in our newspaper. It does nothing to interfere with the paid [subscription] model. In fact, the Ricochet links are all free because they are external links, so that can be synergistic with both of those existing revenue models. It just seems like a good business idea and a business idea that we were uniquely in a position to offer to the marketplace given the depth and breath of the content we have here at the Times Company."
For some companies, the goal of advertising is to publicize lesser-known strengths to an audience likely to appreciate them—another job hard to accomplish with a terse display ad (or even 30-second spot). With an audience of well-schooled influencers and coverage of the sustainability and technology beat, The Atlantic seemed to Fidelity Investments a good publisher to help it do just that.
"They have an incredible amount of internal expertise with sector analysts on a variety of topics," Jay Lauf, publisher and vice president of The Atlantic, says. "Whether water issues or synthetic biology, they have a lot of content they've created … They want to get that story out, to let the world know Fidelity is not just the place where your 401K resides when you start a new job."
To help Fidelity spread the word, The Atlantic created ways to embed sponsored content natively into its Web templates. "It behaves the same way as editorial content, meaning it's shareable, linkable, findable and embedded in the CMS," Lauf says. "It's a dynamic way to get a richer story out to the readership."
Dubbed Thinking Big, the Fidelity campaign features videos profiling advances in genetics associated with curated outside content, photo galleries and a series of educational infographics. In another successful campaign, The Atlantic worked with Porsche on a series of slideshows and related articles highlighting achievements in design. Central to the effort is a level of quality equal to what audiences expect from editorial content in The Atlantic.
"So many marketers and publishers are focused on the how and not the what," Lauf says. Whether embedded content or standard IAB ads, he says, the discussion must include the quality of what you're delivering.
Digital, he says, simply provides a "blanker and wider canvas to paint on," a medium especially well-suited to custom content. "But you need to hold a high bar on creative there, and I think the digital medium just gives you a richer tool to be even more impactful if you do content creation and content integration well."
Lauf says walking the line between sponsored and editorial content is not difficult. With print, he notes, advertisers featuring their own content enjoy the same tools as the editorial team when it comes to presentation and exposure—why shouldn't the same be true in digital? "In digital they've been relegated to technical platforms that are separate from one another," he says. "As long as content is properly labeled and signaled as content from an advertiser there is no reason an advertiser cannot validly use those same tools."
"The rule we have here [is] … we are not trying to fool the reader, ever," he adds. "People who come to our site are really smart, really savvy. They can decide for themselves whether it's interesting to watch a video or read a post from Fidelity on synthetic biology."
As for the banners vs. brand marketing debate, Lauf is fairly agnostic. "I think there's an obvious truth to banner blindness and all the rest," he says. "It's easy to ignore banner advertising, but I think it's easy to ignore any advertising. You've got DVR where you can skip through ads, you can go get a beer and some popcorn and ignore the commercial, flip past the page in a magazine, listen to satellite radio. … Again, we get caught up in the delivery mechanism. Great advertising still is impactful whether served on a billboard in a city center or served on an ad page or commercial. Good creative can stand out." PE