Web Advertising and the Myth of “Lean Forward Media”

The companies promoting various forms of online advertising spend vast amounts of time pointing out well understood challenges with off-line advertising. But those very same companies are blind to the tremendous weaknesses in online advertising.

And the truth is that there are tremendous downsides to web advertising – downsides that may explain the extraordinarily low CPC’s that can be charged online. (More on these costs later.)

The Myth of Lean Forward Media. In the 1990’s advertising agencies claimed that the web had a huge advantage because web surfers were “active and engaged” – that they were “leaning forward” instead of “leaning backward” like with TV. And an entire industry leapt to the fully irrational conclusion that if someone was leaning forward to, for example, read an article, they’d also be more active and engaged with an advertisement.

Fast forward to 2012 and it’s clear they were wrong. In fact, when you consider the way people work, the opposite is true. The more engaged I am with a news story or on the web video I’ve chosen to watch, the less I’m able to open my mind to take in what an advertisement offers.

It’s so bad that when we’re engaged with seeing/searching on the web, we may well be LEAST able to receive advertising messages of nearly any media.

Making the Web Worse: Fragmentation. The web weakness is made worse by the dramatic fragmentation of web audiences. TV aggregates audiences – brings people together so we can reach large numbers.

But the web – shatters them into minuscule pieces. That shattering fundamentally limits the web’s ability to deliver large power.

The New Myth: Targeting by Web Behavior. Still seeking an advantage that can make web valuable for mass campaigns (instead of it’s marginal value known today), websites everywhere and a wide range of venture funded advertising companies are now touting amazing advantages by pinpointing your audience.

Truth is, they’re wrong once again. It’s just as impossible to target on the web with laser-like focus as it is anywhere else. (Explaining this deserves an entire post I’ll get out in a few weeks.)

These Web Weaknesses Explain the CPC Contradiction. I’ve noted for quite some time that if the web theories about advertising were true, they’d be charging far more per click than other media types charge for equivalent action.

But the truth is the opposite: Even when you have a highly targeted audience on the web, you’ll pay far, far less per click than you would for action equivalent through other media.

A Tremendous TV advantage. By contrast, TV ads hit us when we’re relaxed and open – able to hear about new things that interest us. (We’ve heard this in research with consumers about when they’ve called in response to DRTV advertising.)

Even better, rather than fragment the audience, TV aggregates an audience so that advertising reaches far more people and reaches them at a time when they’re relatively open to new messages.

(I focus on TV because that’s the area I know best. Magazines offer similar opportunity to reach consumers when their minds are open as does radio, outdoor, and often newspaper.)

Plan Your Campaigns with a Clear Head. I’m a strong proponent of integrated campaigns and firmly believe the web is part of those campaigns. But it needs to be balanced with an accurate awareness of web weaknesses. And those weaknesses seem to shake out meaning that the web will only deliver a power of 10 where TV delivers the power of 100.

Copyright 2012 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved

About Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett is an expert introducing innovative consumer products and services to market while driving higher return on innovation investment. His career has been spent in innovation and he is the president of Protonik, LLC - an innovation consultancy focused on marketing and innovation. Prior to founding Protonik, he was founder and CEO of ad agency Atomic Direct.

6 Responses to Web Advertising and the Myth of “Lean Forward Media”

  1. NJ Lester says:

    Doug — great article.

    Advertising of all types has and will struggle with metrics ‘proving’ success. I worked in magazines for years and we were always coming up with ways to show how effective a page of advertising in my magazine could be. Readership surveys, etc.

    TV has been no better — and part of the Net guys’ success in selling lean forward was that the TV guys were so arrogant, so sure that TV worked, without question. And if the ad didn’t sell, you were still ‘branding’.

    So online came along and made up a new story about how advertising online was so much better (more sales, less branding) than TV — just as TV did to magazines decades earlier.

    Bottom line, whether it’s print, radio, TV, billboards, online, etc. ‘proving’ success is difficult and advertising sales people will always make up stories and surveys, etc. After years of working in direct response, I like DR’s method of proving success: how many products did I sell today? Clean, simple, unforgiving. No media salesmen needed.

    • Doug Garnett says:

      Thanks for the thoughts. I agree about TV selling. So many networks try to weave these amazing stories about how much more “valuable” their viewers are than anyone else’s … it’s ridiculous.

      The bonus from any response measured media is that you get a partial “action” measurement of the media impact – and that gets past the question of “did I reach anybody who cares and did I reach them more cost effectively”.

      That being said, response measures also only capture a portion of the advertising impact.

      My own preference, though, is for response measurement (when possible & meaningful). It becomes much easier to project impact when you know you’ve reached people who are taking action.

  2. Jen McGahan says:

    Hi Doug. I think it depends on the personality. I’m guilty of being able to be distracted quite easily by online ads, etc. (In fact I marvel that you can tune it out when you are working diligently on an article, and it’s the reason I’m reading your article two weeks after you published it.) Regarding TV; many people sit there with laptop and phone and go clicking off into those rabbit holes when something looks good. Can’t remember where I saw this, but I recently noted a screen capture of a partial TV view with a Twitter feed down the right side so you could see the comments about the show in progress…not the relaxed and open scenario you describe. Probably chats like this scroll in real time on DRTV too?

    • Doug Garnett says:

      Jen –

      Interesting comments. Guess my sense is that there’s always been distractions with TV. And, TV works without needing every viewer to care about every ad. But, TV ads that are meaningful to us have this way of grabbing our attention. Even with iPad on lap, from what I read the surveys are that the iPad activity is casual. (I play brainless solitaire sometimes while watching TV — nothing that dominates my attention.) In some way, that type of casual multi-tasking may even open our minds more. And while I understand your thoughts, my instinct is that it continue to leave our brains far more receptive than when engaged in dedicated “lean forward” browsing.

      Thanks for the thoughts…


  3. Russ Parsley says:

    Good Afternpoon, Doug. I’ve been in the Digital Media space now, since 1996, making me an ancient relic. The reality to it is this, ‘engaging is, as engaging does’ … sound familiar? The more engaging the ad presence, i.e., expandable, dropdown, pre-roll, In-Ad Video, overlays, coupons, social media links, polls, website links, email links, special offer links, more video,oh and did I mention more video, paid inclusion, search, targeted search by GEO, BEHAVIOR or DEMOGRAPHY? Yes, the reality to it is this, while you and I, haling from a very different era, digest data and information at a very different rate than those that are in their teens, 20’s, 30’s and 40’s … assuming your are 50+ (like me soon to be in May 2013). Understanding this, and how the multiple screen scenario is dramatically increasing the amount of time a person will spend ONLINE, the proensity for success through ONLINE advertising is now that much greater that what it was in 2009 and earlier.

    Follow Me on LinkedIn:

    • Doug Garnett says:

      Russ –

      Thanks for the thoughts. For the work we do (mass market, major retail, dramatically new products, need to reach out to new audiences) I disagree with your sense about online. It’s our experience that online only becomes successful when offline leads the way. And offline has about 10x the power (in terms of driving product out the door) as online.

      That doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. In our campaigns, we love a full mix. We are merely careful to keep in line expectations and allocation of budget, expectations and energy.

      For smaller markets where the product is already well known, things can be different. I know a great many highly target small niche marketers who do well with online. In a way, it’s the drive for volume that makes it so impractical.

      Appreciate the comments. These discussions are critical.



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