Wednesday, March 25

Failing Grade: Eric Clemons On Advertising


Eric Clemons, professor of operations and information management at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, drew some fire with his argument that the Internet shatters all forms of advertising. Enough so that he updated his post in an attempt to quell the criticism (or perhaps fan the flames) on TechCrunch, telling people how to properly frame their rebuts, ridiculing them for how they chose to comment, and warning them that he was right one time back in 1989.

As much as the Clemons post provides an excellent example of how someone allowed a message to manage them as opposed to managing their message, it might be useful to explore his argument. And, in doing so, demonstrate why his message failed.

Clemons Argument 1: People don’t trust ads. There is vast literature to support this. Is it all wrong?

As evidence, Clemons offers Dan Ariely's book, Predictably Irrational, which he says concludes that messages attributed to a commercial source have much lower credibility and impact on the perception of product quality than the same message attributed to a rating service. The argument fails, however, because effective advertising accounts for irrational behavior. Enough so that we consider it Rule 7 in The Real Nine Rules of Advertising.

But more importantly, it fails because messages do not take place in isolation. Clemons relies on Ariely's comparative model, which neglects that messages reach people from a variety of sources. It's more likely that a person who sees three advertisements AND a rating service confirmation is likely to be more impacted by that message than a message found only on a rating service. Why? Because the ad message is a promise, and the rating service is a confirmation of delivery on that promise.

He also backed up his argument citing Forrester Research's study that found 16 percent of consumers don't trust corporate blogs. Ironically, that study was flawed because it neglected to take into account that people don't trust blogs much like they don't trust hammers. People trust specific sources, not mediums or objects or industries. You can see the same phenomenon in banking today: people don't trust the financial industry, except for their own banks.

Clemons Argument 2: People don’t want ads. Again, there is a vast literature to support this.

Is there? Contrary to the self-validating statement Clemons without a source, there are some studies that suggest commercial interruptions can actually improve the television viewing experience.

More importantly, newer evidence suggests that while 60 percent of DVR users and 90 percent of TiVo users specifically skip through commercials "some of the time," Integrated Media Measurement found that 35 percent of people who have a DVR watched prime time programming online, where they could not fast-forward commercials. Hulu viewership grew 42 percent last month alone, obviously unhindered by advertising embedded in the programs.

Ergo, people want more choices. Online, the best models remain clear. There is a segment of the population that is willing to pay for commercial-free content, and a segment that is willing to watch commercials in order to enjoy that content for free. The only downside to this model is that offering commercial-free content for those willing to pay for uninterrupted programming reduces the the number of impressions for advertisers. However, it's becoming increasingly clear that CPM decisions are often overrated as they are only a small part of communication measurement.

Clemons Argument 3: People don’t need ads. There is a vast amount of trusted content on the net.

After admitting there is no literature to cite, Clemons asks individuals to think about how they form opinions of a product, from online ads or online reviews.

However, Clemons neglects that most online advertising isn't designed to form opinion. Banner ads, featuring a company name and logo only, do not shape opinion. By design, it can only do two things — build familiarity or lead people to a site where the opinion may be shaped. In other words, Clemons has asked an erroneous question in order to lead people to a suspect conclusion. He didn't need to.

Banner advertising rates are falling as click-through rates tend to be less than one percent. However, the challenge isn't the advertising, it's the execution. As long as online banner advertisements are designed to look like wallpaper, I think it's fair to assume that they will have about the same impact — a little less than one percent might say "Huh, nice wallpaper."

Clemons Truth 1: You cannot ridicule everything you do not like off the net.

One of the most striking comments proposed by Clemons was in his update that challenged people to construct better arguments. "You cannot ridicule everything you do not like off the net," Clemons said.

What struck me about his comment was that he might have considered it prior to writing a piece that aims to do exactly that. He attempted to ridicule online advertising, which he does not like, off the net. And then, even more perplexing, didn't anticipate that a largely unsupported opinion piece might be met with the "like" ridicule, which seems to demonstrate that he really doesn't understand the net at all, let alone advertising. (To be clear: the observation is not meant to diminish his credentials, but rather highlight the flaws in his approach.)

While some of the challenges to online advertising presented are notable, the problem — "the car won't go" — cannot be proclaimed to be the "car" when you haven't bothered to check the gas gauge. And in those cases, the problem is temporary.

As traditional mediums continue to shrink and converge, it stands to reason that online advertising will continue to grow in ways that most people have yet to imagine, especially mobile advertising and interactive proximity advertising. So, in other words, it's not advertising that fails right now. It's ineffective advertising that fails right now.

As an interesting side note to conclude upon, Jason Falls recently asked "Would advertising offend you?" if his blog, social media explorer (SME), began to accept paid advertising. While most people offered up it wouldn't bother them any more than his Alltop or AdAge Power150 badges, which are non-paid ads, Falls correctly points out the obvious: "I don’t make money from my blog. I make money because of it."

Therefore, it might be safe to conclude that the blog IS the ad. Everything else, from being sourced or cited to network participation or paid/unpaid ads (like a widget), attracts people to it. And while I don't know how long people spend on SME, I do know they spend 3-5 minutes visiting this one because we don't demand informed debate, but deliver it with hope for the future.

2 comments:

kystorms on 3/25/09, 1:18 PM said...

I really found this a very interesting read because I too deal with advertising on my blogs. I will be reviewing this again in the near future to better understand what I should take into account when considering more adverts on the blogs.

thank you

Rich on 3/25/09, 3:11 PM said...

Thanks Lisa,

We advertisers begin to understand that online advertising messages can be better matched with the content — eg., Back To School ad on a Mommy Blog or a Army ad on a Support The Troops — as opposed to flashing lights or only logos, it might make more sense to the readers who visit.

This is probably why Google seems to be the only ad platform that reportedly works. While I'm not sure the click payments model is the best (because it discounts impressions and secondary purchases), it seems to me that the real success mirrors magazine advertising in that it mimics a media buyer purchasing a targeted niche publication.

Improve the message, put it in the right place, augment with other communication efforts (because advertising is not generally a single outlet approach), and people respond. It's the sum of all parts that makes communication work.

Glad to have helped.

All my best,
Rich

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