TV News in a Postmodern World

The Challenge of Advertising

by Terry L. Heaton
In the earliest days of television, the programs were nothing more than radio shows in front of a camera. Dramas were done live, just as they were on radio. There were variety shows, comedy shows, game shows and news/information programs. The medium was new, and all anybody knew was radio, so it was natural that the transition to TV would produce similar programs. And radio programs were sponsored, so commercial messages found their way into the television mix, too. The new medium took what it could from the film and radio industries and put it together to become television.

There has been a similar, albeit accelerated, evolution as the Internet has grown, only this transition has been from the print industry to the World Wide Web. We took the best we had from newspapers and magazines and mixed it together with a little interactivity to make the early Net. As bandwidth problems were overcome, the Internet welcomed various elements of radio, television and film, and now we have a brand new medium. It's still largely text-driven, but that's only because text is easy, requires little bandwidth, and is ideally suited to the unique ability of the medium to store, sort and present.

There is a growing sense now, however, that the Internet is much more than text with pictures, and that television of the future will run through an Internet-enabled computer.

This presents a rather large conundrum for Madison Avenue as it figures out how to sell goods and services via the new medium. Clearly, conventional print-style ads don't work. Like many other people, I ran a little company with an advertising business model during the bubble years of the Internet. After 28 years in television, I knew the value of eyeballs, so we built a site that not only recruited users but also kept them. Before we finally gave up on the business model, we were getting a million page views a month, and we were second only to ebay in our ability to keep people on the site. But all those eyeballs were meaningless, because banner advertising simply didn't work.

The latest thing that has the advertising industry all a-twitter is broadband (read: television) ads that are run adjacent to video clips on the Internet. Microsoft and NBC have put together a little deal wherein the network will provide news video to MSN as part of Microsoft's foray into the new world of Internet TV. Video on the Net is nothing new, but the entry of a third partner into this deal is. Starcom MediaVest Group (SMG), a big Los Angeles ad agency, has structured what the ad industry calls an "upfront" buy for MSN Video. It's a first for the Internet. The plan calls for the sale of 15 seconds of commercial video time for every five to six minutes of streaming-video news content, and it has all of Madison Avenue salivating. The deal allows MSN to present the video free-of-charge to consumers, something that will bring in those eyeballs. TV commercials? On the Internet? Oh my, this MUST be the future!

Or not.

The Internet is not TV, not at all. And those TV executives who roll the dice on this as the ultimate solution to the problem of how to make money off their Internet properties are risking more than their careers. Much as those programmers of yesteryear, we're taking what we know and mixing it into this new medium, but what we're failing to see is that the Internet is not a medium of mass marketing, and traditional methods of advertising just don't work very well. In an environment where the user has complete control, he will not long suffer an interrupted experience, and we need to be very careful in presuming that he will.

Starcom, MSN and NBC are reported to have done their homework on the Internet TV ads. A 6-minute story will be divided into two 3-minute segments with a 15-second ad in the middle. My money says they'll discover users leaving during the commercials. Why? Because the Internet isn't TV! Television is a medium that speaks to a passive mass audience. The Internet is an active, one-to-one medium with the user in charge. These ads will have only limited, short-term success. The more producers try to "hide the good stuff" until after the little commercial, the more users will abandon the concept altogether.

The idea of running TV commercials has some short term merit. It's an easy, familiar sell for TV sales people, and it will bring in local revenue. In the long run, however, media Web outlets are going to have to look at what's really working.

"Return on involvement" is a new buzzword, created by agencies that are developing metrics to measure how involved a user is with their ad experience on the Internet. This concept fits beautifully into a Postmodern world, where mass audience is passé and users/viewers/readers/listeners have an escalating number of choices. And involvement in media goes beyond simply a mindset. Postmodernism is the Age of Participation, and that is extending into the world of advertising through creative, interactive concepts that couldn't have been imagined just a few years ago. The simple fact is that this interactive advertising works, and it especially works with the Postmodern crowd. This group builds its core values around its experiences, and anything that produces an involved experience is going to click with Postmoderns, including advertising.

A key component of General Electric's "Imagination at Work" brand makeover earlier this year (GE used to be "We bring good things to life") was a breakthrough Internet ad called "The Pen." Similar to the old Etch-A-Sketch game, the ad featured the text tagline "All Ideas Start With a Sketch. What's Yours?" next to a virtual felt-tip marker pen. The ad caused large numbers of users to doodle out illustrations that were then e-mailed to co-workers, friends and relatives in a viral blitz that even GE didn't see coming. "Pen" was so popular that it sprung up on sites frequented by Web developers, animators and others throughout the creative community. The click-through rate on "Pen" was three times higher than the average click-through for banner ads, and the viral send-along component had a 28% higher e-mail opening rate. The ad was so successful than GE is planning another one in January of 2004.

The interactive nature of this ad is credited with its success, but there's something else that bears observation. There was no sales pitch whatsoever associated with the ad. It was pure branding. There was no "call for the close." Users didn't have to pay any price whatsoever for making a sketch. This is brand advertising in a Postmodern world.

Similarly, Orbitz is touting the success of its interactive pop-under ad campaigns that feature a plethora of games such as miniature golf (I'm addicted), Dunk the Punk, All-Star Home Run, Pilot the Blimp, Catch the Firefly and others. The facts that these are those awful pop-unders and that they include an automatic click-through doesn't seem to stop people from using them and doing so over and over and over. Consumers are spending staggering amounts of time playing the games, while simultaneously driving travel sales and building the Orbitz brand. The average playing time for these ads is 5 minutes, but some of the reports about how long people play them are mind-boggling.

One user clicked 930 times in a 1.8-hour time span on the "All-Star Home Run" pop-under. Another player spent 30 hours on "Pilot the Blimp." Each person who clicks on the "Belly Flop" does so an average of seven times, and nobody dunks the punk just once.

The Onion and Salon both employ ad strategies that involve viewing a full-page ad prior to accessing content. Salon requires the user navigate through an ad that usually involves several pages, but Onion includes an option to skip the ad — something that makes the intrusion tolerable, because the choice to watch is with the user.

On-demand advertising is a Postmodern, digital concept that flies in the face of conventional "commercial interruption" thinking. The idea is simple: People will seek out advertising when they're in need of purchasing something. It's the sale paper concept delivered in ones and zeros. Cox Cable's Freezone experiment in San Diego has been a raging success, according to a study by the folks at Frank N. Magid Associates. Freezone is a series of on-demand advertiser videos. According to Magid, each unique viewer spends approximately 25.5 minutes per week viewing advertiser content.

From a Postmodern perspective, this is extremely significant, for on-demand advertising on TV fits the Pomo mindset perfectly. Regardless of the cultural framework, people will always have to make purchases, but Pomos turn away from traditional sales techniques that disrupt the experiences they choose. In an on-demand, digital video environment, people can make their own choices about which ads to view, and, as the Magid study suggests, the advertisers who get there first will have a significant leg up in a Postmodern world.

AdAge shocked the publishing world last week, when it gave its annual "Magazine of the Year" award to Conde Nast upstart Lucky Magazine. This is significant, because the magazine is really nothing more than a catalog dressed up as a magazine. Its appeal is to young female readers, but there are no articles about health, relationships or career advice. In giving the award, AdAge wrote: "...The culture warriors in the audience can start hand-wringing, if they haven't already. But since its late 2000 launch, Conde Nast Publications' Lucky has invented a genre, made its influence visible elsewhere — seen any eye-candy product pages in magazines lately? — and, not least, delighted marketers and readers." Lucky is a classic Postmodern publication, an honest, in-your-face advertising vehicle that doesn't try to disguise itself as something else.

Local online ad spending is growing at a staggering rate this year, according to a new report by Borrell Associates. While Internet ad revenues are growing overall at 15 percent, local spending is growing at a rate of 26 percent. There is a fresh energy in the air that Internet advertising can and will work and, for the first time, this energy is being felt at the local level. Yet many (if not most) local media Web properties are ill-prepared to dip their net into this growing revenue pond.

Here are five things you can do immediately to position your Web property for revenue growth.

  1. Register your users. This is a small price for people to pay to have free access to your content, but it opens significant future doors to you. You can't provide targeted ads unless you know a little about who's using your site. Registration doesn't have to be an arduous task. Keep it simple. Get their email address, gender, age, and zip code. A first name is nice, if you want to provide a personalized service. Make it public that you've weighed the options and decided to keep your content free and that all you're asking in return is that they register.

  2. Hire the top Flash artist in your market and begin designing interactive games for your local clients. Providing this service will give you a significant competitive advantage in trying to woo those local online ad dollars to your Website.

  3. Bring EyeWonder to your table in providing streaming video content and ads. EyeWonder leads the pack in terms of playerless video streaming, something that is critical if you're going to get into running TV ads online. Why? Because there's no waiting for downloads with playerless streaming, so the interruption to the user's experience is decreased.

  4. Make sure your Web design can accommodate the various ad types and sizes that are being developed. Simple banner advertising is the horse & buggy of Internet advertising, and your site needs to be structured to reflect new sizes. There are approximately 45 new models out there, and the industry is crying for standardization. Don't expect that to come for awhile.

  5. Learn the language of rich media. This is the medium for online messages, and you need to know it like you know television. Explore DoubleClick's new DART Motif software for serving and tracking ads. Developed by DoubleClick and Macromedia, the makers of Flash, it is the new model for rich media advertising.
While the institution of advertising desperately clings to norms and standards, there are a lot of very talented people in the trenches who recognize what's really going on. These people vent their frustration on various blogs and bulletin boards, which make for fascinating reading for a person like me. Here's a recent example from Mediapost's Online Spin:

"...Sooner, but probably later, the ad community is going wake up and realize that (online) advertising is becoming a lot more about ‘farming’ than ‘hunting.’ Attacking viewers with online ads doesn't acknowledge their control of the space. We have to develop relevant, entertaining, informative content that answers the unasked questions — the questions consumers need answered before they act. Build it. Let consumers know it's there. Show them some respect. And if what you have to say is worth their time, they'll let you know by visiting regularly..."

In so doing, the industry will recognize that the Internet isn't a newspaper, a magazine, a radio or a television station. It's a whole new medium. We can mix the best from the old world to prime the pump of the new, but eventually, the medium will define itself.

And if you have eyes to see, that's happening with each passing day.