Sunday, 9 May 2010

Why Online Companies May Need To Think Analogue

DammamImage via Wikipedia
I was drafted in to run the panel session on the effectiveness of online advertising at the excellent Digimedia conference wot took place in Dubai last week (lots of speaker videos here if you want to catch up on some of the excellent and thought provoking types that were there). Moderating panel sessions on topics about which I know very little indeed always brings joy to my heart, but as it turns out I had a question I wanted to ask in order to satisfy my own curiosity. And that question kicked things off very nicely indeed, thank you.

I'd sat through a presentation by Yahoo! complaining that only 1% of Middle East ad revenue was going to online sites, while print and TV still comprise the lion's share of advertising revenues. This despite the tens of millions of people in the region who are actively online, the 10 million-odd people on Facebook, the thousands of blogs and the popularity of online forums and social sites (portal Jeeran, for instance, pulls some 12 million unique visits per day - that's over ten times the circulation of the region's biggest selling paper, Egypt's Al Ahram).

The online industry complained that they are infinitely measurable, they can show click-through rates, measurable routes through content, response rates and activation rates - they can tell you who's where, how long for, where they came from and where they went to, what they watched, liked, responded to. And yet they're only 1% of the overall.

Which brings me to the question. If the publishing industry can go to an advertiser with nothing more than a basic audit (ABC or BPA) or even no audit at all and still sell them advertising in, say, 'Motorsport Today', what's the problem selling audiences of millions with virtually infinite measureability?

The answer, according to members of the audience, is that online companies in the Middle East aren't selling. They're behaving like online companies - 'the content's here, so come and get it'. But the advertiser base thinks like offline companies do - 'I'm here, come sell to me'.

And I can see how that disconnect could have crept in - I remember travelling to the Gulf as part of a sales team in the late 1980s to find that we had 16 people in Saudi Arabia at that time - all having flown out on 3-4 week advertising sales trips. A huge sales force, but one that was pulling in huge revenues. At the time we were just at the end of the era when the GM would pull out the company stamp and stamp the order there and then (legendarily, some would even open desk drawers and give you the cash!). It was good, old-fashioned sales - AIDA, DIPADA and all that. And it worked.

Advertisers in the Middle East have always bought a product that they can pick up and understand. They have bought a product intended for a target market they have in mind and want to reach. Car companies like car magazines and supplements, technology companies like technology publications. The online companies aren't selling the emotional appeal of specialised or relevant content plus reach - they're just selling data. They're investing in analysis rather than in teams of hungry young suits facing clients with compelling sales propositions that show how the market can effectively reach a given target audience for less than print or TV with content that makes contextual sense to the advertiser.

It is, of course, highly likely that I'm talking complete crap. But it didn't half get the panel session going!
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