ADS REGULARLY TOUT Freedom of Choice, but the buzz phrase of the moment should be Freedom to Click. Because while the brave new world of Internet advertising provides a cheaper and more interactive way to tout products than do television or magazines, the consumer can surf to another site as easily as he or she can change channels or turn pages. Moreover, the consumer on the Web is likely to be more hostile to advertising there than in other media.
Trying to keep the consumer clicking in the right direction is now the job of agencies like Big Bang, which no longer simply produce television, print, and radio campaigns. Agencies now grapple with such ad vehicles as banner wraps, pop-outs (those extra windows that appear in corners of the computer screen), and interstitial ads (messages that appear and dissolve). They study the art of achieving respectful rates of click-through—a user's clicking on a banner ad to get to the advertiser's home page. They monitor the improved demographic studies that the Web's lax privacy affords marketers. Thus Big Bang, which bills itself as an Internet-savvy brand-building agency, is charged with manipulating this unwieldy tool to put clients on the pop-culture map. "At first, we were kind of skeptical," muses Big Bang's 32-year-old president, Bill Grant. "Now we're like, 'This is incredible.'"
Sitting at a sleek, diner-style booth in Big Bang's Seattle office, Grant says that he and Wade Koniakowsky, the executive creative director who now works in the company's San Diego branch, came to believe that an Internet advertising boom was coming when they founded the company four years ago.
Now, they think the Net can help David-sized clients compete with Goliaths. A few years ago, the two landed the account for Brooks, the Bothell-based athletic shoe company that lagged far behind a field dominated by swooshes and stripes. Brooks didn't have the cash to fund a Super Bowl commercial, so Big Bang formulated a campaign of magazine ads and radio spots, and focused on making its logo as recognizable as those of its competitors. Then the Internet came along, furnishing another—and potentially far more powerful—low-cost weapon.
Big Bang put Brooks banners on Web sites like that of Runner's World and sites tied in with grassroots sporting events, thus reaching out to consumers who may have grown disenchanted with the ominously corporate Nike. In the next few months, the Web campaign will extend to financial sites, as studies have shown that nearly half of all runners are both wired and follow Wall Street.
Brooks is now the world's fastest-growing running-shoe company, and while Grant is quick to insist that the company's success is due mostly to traditional marketing, he adds that in the past few months Internet advertising has taken a sharp upturn in significance. The implications make him positively giddy. "In the future," he says, "everybody will be able to sit there while watching sports and click on an ad for a shoe company and go right to it. That's like an orgasm for us."
But like everyone else trying to exploit this new medium, Big Bang's principals are as cautious as they are excited. An almost daily flow of case studies about click-through rates and customer interest confront agencies with alarming information about hostile consumer attitudes and reaction to Internet advertising. Other beasts to contend with include privacy-conscious users who know how to turn off digital markers known as "cookies" so that their presence on a site can't be detected, and software that can block out ads altogether.
There's also the threat of oversaturation. With brick-and-mortar stores, e-commerce companies, and news, personal, and financial sites all vying for your attention online, the pummeled-by-ad rate on the Internet has already surpassed the nuisance of leafing through the ad-dominated front pages of Rolling Stone. "Because this is the next big shiny thing," Big Bang's Koniakowsky points out, "companies that want to use the Internet for marketing tend to be myopic. Right now, it's the Gold Rush, and it's become a wasteland of taste."
BESIDES SPRUCING UP banners and other variations on the Internet ad, agencies must add design and care of a client company's Web site to their arsenal of responsibilities—particularly since the site is often the showcase to which ads in other media guide the consumer. To this end, Big Bang renamed two of its clients, in order to make them appear more cyber-friendly, and has added interactivity to the Brooks site, developing an outdoor event series—a sort of Extreme Biathlon called the Muddy Buddy Ride & Run—for which participants can register online.
Such conceptual advertising and branding is becoming more commonplace. Some sites are practically begging users to visit and return. CBS's Sportsline, for example, awards points, redeemable for sporting goods and other items, to users who click within the site and especially to those who purchase souvenirs.
That a large company would resort to such a ploy just to keep people coming to its site is testament to the power a consumer has on the Web in comparison to other media. "The Internet's put the customer in control," says Terry Roberts, director of strategic consulting for the Seattle Web development firm Fine.com. "They're a click away from going around and checking out a competitor."
And those clicks eventually translate to dollars. With the glut of banners, the average of click-throughs from an ad to a home page has dwindled by some accounts to around 2 percent. But because of technological advancements, marketers can directly gauge an individual's reaction to an ad—something that can't be done in traditional advertising—even when he or she doesn't click through. A Seattle Internet media data marketing company, Avenue A, recently posted a case study of this capability on its Web site, using data from a campaign designed to lure consumers to Eddie Bauer's e-commerce site. It shows that the Seattle clothing company's cost-per-click and cost-per-sale could be monitored accurately. "What we did," explains Avenue A vice president of sales and marketing Mike Leo, "was set up our technology to measure whether someone who had seen an Eddie Bauer banner had come to [the site] in the next two weeks and bought a T-shirt or a pair of pants."
Such data-mining progress has made agencies like Big Bang confident that advertising's once-flat surface, where businesses served up a message and consumers either responded or let it zip by, has taken on fascinating new dimensions. Grant says that while the subtleties of banner advertising need to be worked out, it's already become a viable way to either spread the word or become a virtual version of the very real point of sale. "You click on a banner and go right to a store, and I just love it," he gushes. "Not only can we create a miniature billboard with some movement in it, but we can tell our clients that 10 percent of the people who saw it clicked on it and went to your store."