When's the last time a commercial Web site made you cry?
Unless you're a big WorldCom or Enron investor, the answer is probably never. Most corporate sites are fairly bland assemblages of informative content, designed by committee to offend the fewest people or to drive the quick sale. Even sites designed to get consumers' pulses racing (such as many automotive and packaged-goods sites) pack little emotional impact beyond the occasional chuckle.
The state of online advertising is even worse. Driven by years of dogma declaring, "The Web is a direct response medium!" online advertising in all its forms is about as emotionally engaging as, well, direct mail. And, yeah, plenty of folks in the rich-media arena will tell you their products are "engaging" simply because they move or make noises, but that's not the same thing as emotional engagement. Let's face it: Most online ads are deadly dull, unmemorable, and fairly vacant.
That isn't to say some don't work: many online marketing sites are stuffed to the gills with case studies of online campaigns that "work" from a direct marketing standpoint. We stand up and cheer when we're able to pull in 2 to 5 percent of the folks who view an ad, forgetting that the other 95 to 98 percent of the folks didn't give a hoot. We get jazzed about driving traffic, increasing click-throughs, and bumping up unique visitors but spend precious little time examining what else advertising can do: build brands through emotional engagement.
Plenty of evidence now supports the assertion that branding online can work. StatMarket recently published a study that finds most users are now going directly to sites via their bookmarks or by typing in the URL, not by going through search engines or following links on the Web. Various studies by DynamicLogic confirm branding campaigns can be effective Web advertising tools. And a study by Engage released last year points out it's ad viewers, not clickers, who are the most loyal, engaged customers.
The issue is even broader than simple "branding" (which should really be called "brand recognition"), which focuses on bombarding consumers with logos until their brains finally submit and create a space in memory for the brand. Recognition is one thing, but, as traditional advertisers have always known, it's brand affinity that really makes the difference - affinity that can only be brought about through an emotional attachment with the brand and its experience.
Let's look at the most obvious example: television. The most effective brand advertising on television is advertising that reaches us on an emotional level, going way beyond features, benefits, and specifications. Nike's famous campaigns celebrating the triumph of women in sport; BMW's edge-of-your-seat films; Keep America Beautiful's famous 1971 "crying Indian" spot; the great crop of heart-wrenching post-September 11 work put out by the Ad Council... all of these (and all the other commercials that work so well on us) succeed because they get deep inside us, bypassing our rational brain and triggering our feelings. Good direct response can do the same thing, but only by appealing to our baser desires for immediate gratification, money, sex, and so on.
"But that's TV," you say. "You can't do stuff like that on the Web!" Baloney. The problem is few, if any, have tried. As my colleague Jeffrey Graham pointed out last week, much of the blame for online advertising's ineffectiveness should be placed on the creative, not on the media strategies. He's right in many cases, though for different reasons. Bad ads do not come from incorrect logo usage or messaging hidden behind layers of animation. Bad ads are bad ads. Period. Images don't need to have motion, noises, or even color to grab us (just look at any volume of Time Life classics if you disagree). They just have to speak to us in a way that doesn't always flow from MBA case studies or finely honed strategies. Good creative comes from the heart, and there ain't a lot of heart in any Web advertising I've seen.
Are creatives to blame? I don't think so. I think the deeper issue is the medium is still very young and we're all still trying to figure out what works. If you look back at the early days of TV advertising, it conceptually looks very similar to ads you see on the Web today: stand in place, hold up product, repeat several funny lines, ask for the buy. That works fine if you're selling Vegematics (or servers or credit cards or online casinos or...), but if we're ever going to progress beyond generating the Pavlovian click response, we're going to have to learn how to dig deeper and create campaigns that appeal to the heart as well as the wallet. In the end, it may be that the next frontier of online advertising has nothing to do with the technology and everything to do with the imagery.
Sean Carton is Chief Experience Officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.
Reprinted from ClickZ.com.