Does the Internet really suck as a branding medium?

Alan Pearlstein, recently posted a provocative statement in an AdAge article titled, “When Will Brand Dollars Move Online? Maybe Never.” He stated:

It’s time to face the reality that the Internet sucks as a branding medium.

I find myself somewhat conflicted by the sweeping nature of Alan’s assertion, even if I do sympathize with his viewpoint. The thrust of Alan’s argument is that the Internet is an archetypal direct marketing medium, and it should be valued as such. Different media, he proposes, have different strengths and should play to them.

But one of the problems with the Internet – as I have observed before – is that it is not just one medium. It is the counterpart to many different traditional channels. While I totally agree that in today’s world the brand building power of display ads is typically small, I do not believe the same is true of online videos.

But that point apart, I find it hard to argue with Alan’s proposition that TV is a far better brand building medium. But it is not just because TV commercials evoke an emotional response from their audience. After all, online ads evoke an emotional response as well, even if the emotion is the frustration you feel when you get a pop-up instead of the page you asked for. Nor do I believe it is impossible to evoke a positive response to a display ad. Dynamic Logic’s database shows some ads to be very effective. But it may be more difficult to evoke a true emotional response online simply because of the way the medium is consumed and processed by its audience.

Two girls searching the web

The thing that makes the Internet such a great direct response medium – with the exception of some video content – is its “lean forward’ nature. The audience is actively engaged with the content and is consciously searching for items of interest. As a result, not only do people find it easy to ignore irrelevant content, they consciously process the content that they do find relevant. If something is of interest, they can take as much time as they like to make sense of it and figure out how it might apply to them. Their instinctive emotional response tends to get subsumed as people consciously engage with the content.

By contrast, TV is a lean back medium. Typically people sit back and follow along with the content and consume it passively. Their attention is directed to anything that promises to be interesting, engaging or enjoyable. Content is not processed semantically, but episodically as a series of images, ideas and feelings that is rarely thought about at the time of viewing.

This is a tremendous advantage for the brand marketer, because entertaining and engaging content is viewed, even for brands in which the viewer has no current interest. That makes TV a great medium for seeding ideas and feelings which come to fruition at a later date when people actively think about the brand, when researching or shopping.

On balance, I find Alan’s proposal that “the Internet sucks as a branding medium,” to be overstated. Sure, it works better as a direct response medium, but only on average and only in some forms, e.g. display ads. Online video behaves more like TV and that makes it a powerful brand building channel.

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