Novelty and the Future of Online Marketing

I’ve been thinking a lot about how the Internet confuses novelty with effectiveness. Let me explain.

Back in 1994, when I worked at Sony Music, we did an online chat with Our Lady Peace on our BBS (yes, this was before the commercial web even existed in any real sense – people had to dial in using their modem, not the Net). At that time we put out a press release and we ended up on the nightly news and the New Music talking about the chat. These days there are hundreds of chats every day and almost none of them get any press coverage. The effectiveness of chats didn’t come from the 100 hard-core fans that figured out the software to type with the band but from the media coverage.

When banners were first introduced years ago on the HotWired site, the clickthrough rate was incredible. Everyone was talking about the Zima ads and most people I knew in the industry had gone to the site and clicked on the ad just to see how it worked. Over time the effectiveness (measured in clickthroughs) decreased precipitously. The effectiveness of banners in the early days was largely a function of people thinking they were cool (or not even realizing that they were ads!). Now, no one really talks about banners they’ve seen or gets media attention for running an ad. And consumers have actually learned to not even SEE anything that resembles a traditional banner.

So we now look to three new trends as being the “Future of Net Marketing”. The first is Rich Media ads, followed by Email Marketing, and finally (how ironic) Offline Advertising. Each of these are now being touted as a way to cut through the clutter, usually with examples of how Company X or Site Y managed a coup by using a cursor to run an ad, or bought 30 seconds of Super Bowl ad time, or got a 30 percent response rate to some house mailing.

My guess is that once EVERYONE starts using these techniques (“hey, this looks good, let’s spend some money on flavor of the month here>”), the techniques will lose their effectiveness as well.

Look at Super Bowl ads as an example. When Monster Board and Hot Jobs ran ads during last year’s game they managed to get weeks worth of free publicity. This year there are many companies following their lead and blowing half their annual ad budget on one or two 30 second spots. How effective do you think these ads will be? I don’t think anyone will get a big hit from the ads, and next year the effect will be minimal. What really made those ads effective was the novelty of dotcoms running ads during the Super Bowl, not the ads themselves. I mean look at this posting – we’re STILL talking about Zima and HotJobs.

Lessons learned? When looking at marketing techniques that worked for others, subtract the novelty factor before proceeding. How much of the lift came from the actual campaign and how much came from the buzz around the campaign. And how long will the novelty last before effectiveness starts to slip?