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August 5, 2008
Banner-based Conversations
Consider the banner. It’s old. About fourteen years old – here’s a link to the purported first banner ever. And thought to be rather un-sexy. When’s the last time you went to a conference and saw a breakout sessioncalled ‘The Art of the Banner’? It’s mostly yada yada yada about search engine marketing / blog seeding / out-of-home / mobile integration / (insert buzzword here).
Don’t get me wrong: My colleagues at McKinney and I live for tracking and recommending new marketing technologies. But, rest assured, we have faith that the ‘lowly’ online banner advertisement can and will do wondrous things. And the key to this faith is an understanding of how brands and people are engaging in conversations today.
But first a bit of history. From the very beginning, banners existed primarily as a direct response mechanism. The creative is designed so that the consumer clicks here and buys the product (or considers the product, fills out a lead generation form, . . . you get the idea.) There’s usually a button right in the banner that you push and your expectation is that, after the click, you are going to get the hard sell.
Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this approach. I would estimate that 95% of our clients’ online display media spend goes supporting direct response. And through behavioral targeting, segmentation strategies, and other targeting techniques, the entire industry is getting better at serving the right message (offer might be a better word) to the right person at the right place and time.
The next shift was rich media. Starting at around the turn of the century, Pointroll, Eyeblaster and others offered the tools to create a far more engaging experience. And the uptake of broadband usage let us marketers use these tools and reach more people more powerfully. And what did we do with these new powers? Some pretty neat things, like let people drive a car, play a game, or, to give a McKinney example, play with a product in unexpected ways. “Branded interaction time” became a new key metric to go alongside of click through rate, and cost per action. Yet, by and large, we marketers still thought only about controlling the interaction, and steering the discussion in one direction -- ours.
I would submit to you that this desire to control is a bit antiquated – instead of interrupting the consumer’s online life as we did in the beginning of banners, or even engaging and interacting with them in the era of rich media, in many cases we should be using even our friend the banner to converse with them.
Why conversations and why now? Well, if you push the curtain of buzzwords aside, some real changes have been happening in interactions between brands and people and people and people:
  • The barriers for online self-expression are now dramatically reduced. Way back in, say, 2002 you needed a computer science degree, or at least a working knowledge of HTML, in order to express yourself online. Now with the prevalence of (to name a few) YouTube, flickr, Blogger, and twitter, it is simple to communicate with friends, family and the world.
  • The barriers for critiquing online are much lower, too. When you rate your movies on Netflix or comment on your friend’s photos, it may seem trivial, but you are contributing to Consumer Generated Content and millions of these comments make up a massive part of the conversations about brands that get generated every day.
  • Everything is getting more connected. Mobile phone, personal computer, smart home. . it’s all meshing together, and becoming more persistent and ubiquitous. What was one of the highest downloads for the new iPhone 3G? The facebook app.
So you may be thinking ‘lots of neat trends, most of which I already know – what’s the point?


Take a break, have a laugh



First of all, the nature of discourse has shifted from one to many to being many-to-many. The best case-in-point:  five of the top ten most visited sites in the United States are comprised mainly of content generated by people, for other people.
And brands have a responsibility to join this discourse. Now I am not going to go to an extreme and say “The consumer is now in control and brands are dying.” Because, firstly, people need brands and will always need them -- to befriend, make sense of the world around them, and as shorthand to make purchase decisions. Secondly, the consumer has always been in control – we have always had the choice to not buy products, turn off the tellie – in essence ban certain brands from our lives.
What I am going to posit is that, given this new prevalence of self-expression and sharing in plain sight, brands have an increased responsibility to continually converse with consumers, not shout at them. The most straightforward recommendations agencies make in this area is ‘start a facebook group!' ‘start a twitter feed!’ so honest discussions can happen – and this is all valid.
But why not the banner? In addition to ‘click here for more’, why not ask them a question? If you look at recent banners by VW and Patron we see this starting to happen. But this is at such a surface level – these brands are just asking people to vote via the banner. We can do so much more:
  • Why not share passions from other people who love your brand?
  • Why not, use the banner as a means of communication via TXT and voice over IP, to capitalize on the interconnectedness of all devices?
  • Why not bridge the physical and virtual to get people together?
These are the questions that we ask continually at McKinney and, to our minds; these questions get closer to the true nature of conversation. The end result is that, by respectfully conversing with people across all media, they will invariably get emotionally attached to your brand.
And the lowly, ubiquitous, unglamorous banner can lead the way.

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Jim Russell is a major reason why one third of McKinney’s revenue comes from interactive work and why McKinney has earned top honors in media innovation from the industry’s most prestigious shows. Jim joined McKinney in 2003 from Circle.com in Boston.  He started his career at Accenture, first in artificial intelligence and then at their Center for Strategic Technology at Palo Alto.


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