Sunday, 24 November 2013

Online and Digital Media - A Different Perspective 1

Online and Digital Media are the flavour of the day, with everyone waxing eloquent about the prospects and opportunities of the said medium. In the Information Technology age that we are living in, it is only to be expected that there would be an exuberance and a dream of high growth and deep penetration of this medium. And, truth be told, the initial figures that are now coming in - and these are initial days, make no mistake - have only underlined the tremendous potential of this nascent industry. 

However, every coin has 2 sides; every situation has multiple perspectives. And remember that the full nature of the industry is not revealed till it enters its fast growth or even mature phase. These are early days for the online medium, and it is going to be an interesting growth phase for it, as it grows and tries to meet the challenges and hurdles that are thrown its way.And, insofar as it has not had to meet any challenges till date, it should be interesting to see how it deals with the first few challenges. But all that and more lies in the distant future, and will come about in the fullness of time. The question is, can we spot any challenges, or differing perspectives, that might throw some light on the days ahead? 

To my mind, the first challenge, or hurdle it will have to find ways to overcome can be from the field of advertising - how it will overcome or re-orient to this challenge when it does come is going to be critical. Currently, as Ms Vanita Kohli-Khandekar pointed out recently in an article India Online - On the go, the revenue from advertising is rising - and rising fast, driven by a combination of growth in the medium along with significant alterations in consumption habits of customers. We shall look at the consumption habits of customers in a later article; let us take a look at the advertising aspect - not from an advertisers' view, but from a customers' viewpoint

I myself am a habitual online consumer in a couple of categories, as well as have a more than peripheral involvement in my professional sphere with a few websites for my range of products, and have thus seen and experienced both sides of the coin. Viewed from my professional standpoint, I cant spot a speck on the online horizon. But the moment I shift my perspective to that of a consumer, everything changes, and questions begin to emerge. Questions which find no ready answer as current industry practices stand. 

On reading the referenced article, something clicked in my mind: and I asked myself a basic question - what advertisments do I recall? I could not recall even a single solitary online advertisment, banner, insert, or pop-up on the first thought; neither could I recall any even after some thought. It was only some 15-20 minutes later, that one came to  mind. In the interim, I could recall several print advertisments, as well as television advertisements - but not one single online advertisement. Critically, I am online for a large part of the day on my laptop, as well as am professionally involved in a small way, as a part of my business targets comprise online revenues and sales. Further, I am an active online consumer. And yet, I could not recall any advertisement. 

What's going on here? Why should this be so? I am exposed to online advertisements - I must be, since I regularly visit TOI, HT, Flipkart, Homeshop18, Amazon, Quora, Blogger, Livemint, Business Standard, Railway Portals,Youtube as well as myriad other assorted sites. And yet, my call is a total of zero. Note that recall after 20 minutes does not count in advertising. In an interesting contrast, I can recall innumerable Television ads (Fill It, Shut It, Forget it -Hero Honda, 20 years ago even; Cadbury girl dancing in the rain; Cadbury adults can have chocolates theme; Idea Ad; Volkswagen Vento and other ads; Mint with the hole - Polo; Amul Theme ad; Britannia Marie... I could go on and on here). I can also recall innumerable print ads - Airtel; Color Plus; Vertu; Complan; LIC etc. I can even recall huge numbers of hoardings without thinking - but not one single online advertisement. 

Even allowing for a bad memory - the inescapable fact is that online medium does not make a lasting impression. It does not enable top-of-the-mind recall; and, far too obviously, it does not even manage to communicate the core message that must be at the heart of each advertisement's strategy. And the point of the bad memory is inadmissible, given my crystal clear recall of ads in other media. Theory tells us that one of the strategies that can be adopted in online media is a call-to-action, wherein a click can take you to your desired site, enabling a purchase decision - if not an actual purchase. Here again, we run into questions: for I further cannot recall any instance of even a single online purchase that has been driven by perchance clicks. 

Admittedly, in this instance, recall is not the right parameter - which is why I state "questions", unlike above, wherein I have made a categorical assertion. That I must have encountered interesting links is a givne; I must also have followed those links. But as a consumer, I have no recollection of it ever creating a lasting impression in my mind. Contrast this with the other media like print and television - even hoardings. For example, Color Plus, I had never consciously seen anyone wearing that brand in my circle, so had no direct contact. And I can recall the powerful impression that back-cover and inside back-cover magazine placements of its advertisments; I can recall the presentation of the products and my drooling and determination to purchase one the ,moment I was earning enough to afford one. 

I can quote other examples; but the question remains the same - even as a call-to-action, online advertisements fail to make the cut in comparison to other media. It does not enable recall, it does not manage to communicate the core message, it does not enable a call-to-action. The reason is simple - in the internet, the control is truly in the mind and hands of the consumer, When I log on to TOI, I know precisely where the first headline comes - my mind automatically focusses my eyes on that approximate location. If you insert an ad while loading, the site helpfully provides a link that bypasses the ad. It you get a pop-up, your mind focusses your primary attention in the "x" mark that will close the ad. In a youtube video, your mind focusses your eyes and attention on the area where "skip video" option shows up...

Which brings me to the core point of my article - why, then, should I, as a practising business manager, recommend anything more than a peripheral presence on the internet in terms of advertising?  Clicks do not translate into business; in advertising, the core mission is 2-fold: always and everytime. First, enabling brand recall - top-of-mind recall; and second, communicate the message. The message can be just brand recall, or product features, or call-to-action (Sales Promos), or anything. But the message has to get through. If the ad fails to do either, what am I getting out of it? So what if the cost-per-impression is the lowest in online advertisements - which it decidedly is? Far too obviously, interaction with the customer through other media is of a much higher quality; money spent there is seemingly much more effective...

Feel free to answer my questions raised here; these are those that have occurred to me in the daily grind of doing business...  In the next article in this series, we shall take a look at consumption habits, and at the awesome and brutal power of this little understood medium, a power that I have felt, a potential to get into the gut of existing business models and rip them apart from within... the first tremors of which are already being noticed by the sales teams and the channel...

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