Don’t just serve ads; enable commerce

In today’s changing media environment, the simple serving of ads is no longer sufficient to sustain business growth. We have to do more, and it begins with taking responsibility for the effectiveness of the advertising we provide to an audience. We intuitively know this is true, because we recognize that our own content can’t simply stand still the way it used to. If we have to jump through technological hoops to “help” our content be more engaging, imagine what our advertisers want and need.

This is one of the reasons we say that “advertising is content” in the Media 2.0 world. Advertisers know all too well what’s happening and, absent efforts from media companies to help them, they’re taking matters into their own hands in attempts to find and engage audiences with their messages.

Local television stations, for example, have sustained double-digit revenue losses from the automotive category, because the best we can provide is image or brand advertising. We’re very good at that, but automobile dealers have discovered better ways to move inventory, and we’re not a part of that. In today’s economy especially, lead generation is the only thing that matters to automobile dealers, and that happens most efficiently (and cost-effectively) from non-media sites like Moreover, dealers are increasingly relying on used-car inventory to stay afloat, and the used car business is driven by inventory-based advertising, which is why dealers will likely always pay for such ads with newspapers.

Used car ads are inventory-driven

With the Web, TV stations have a tool that can help auto dealers conduct commerce, but such efforts have been generally limited to special sections for paying dealers or image and special deal awareness ads for new cars. TV station websites simply are not in the used car advertising business, despite the fact that it would be a relatively simple task to do so.

An auto dealer’s inventory is its heart and soul. Each night, dealers transmit a simple data file of their updated inventory to companies like HomeNet. HomeNet serves the online and mobile inventory needs of perhaps a dozen dealers in a medium-sized market. The point is this data stream contains everything any media company would need to provide inventory-based ads for local dealers. A widget, for example, with updatable content would do nicely, and this is what we mean when we say that web advertising is about enabling commerce.

The usefulness of any action-based online ad depends entirely on whether visitors to the site will heed the call to action and click on the ad. As media companies, our tendency is to avoid responsibility for such action, believing that our role ends at the serving of the ad. This is Media 1.0 thinking, however, and the assumptions of enabling commerce include “helping” users click on ads.

Click-through rates on ads are generally horrible, less that two-tenths of one percent. There is also data suggesting that two of every three clicks is a mistake. Anything we can do to enhance those rates will reflect well on our sites and give us a competitive advantage with advertisers seeking clicks.

One thing we could do without compromising integrity is to put a very simple application/page between the ad and the URL of its link. We call this an “anchor interstitial.”

Anchor Interstitial

The page only appears for about four seconds, but it does two things. One, it thanks the user for “helping us serve you better by supporting our sponsors,” and, two, it encourages users to stay with the click. It violates no ethical standards, because it doesn’t endorse any product or service. It’s a generic, “thank you” response to a click. To the advertiser, however, it demonstrates a willingness on the part of the media company to enable commerce in the market.

In order to move our businesses back into a growth mode, we’re going to have to go beyond the simple serving of advertising and the belief that our scarce content alone is sufficient to drive business. It isn’t and won’t ever be again, and, as Steve and I have written often, the enabling of commerce was the original role of advertising anyway. The 19th Century newspaper enabled commerce through classifieds, and it did so beautifully.

The Web is the new newspaper, and we’re just beginning to understand how to use it.

(Originally posted in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel newsletter)


  1. Thought provoking post, as usual. Thanks.

    Wouldn’t it be cool if a web page looked like the Print Ad? I always thought the best info architecture was in Print. It has evolved over 500 years, instead of the 10 or so on the web.

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