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questionThe IAB presented its statistical and philosophical take on 2008 today, and while it tracked some surprising growth numbers it left more than a few questions unanswered for the balance of 2009.

The important numbers: total US internet advertising growth topped 10.6 percent in 2009 when offline media dropped 2.4 percent. The industry crossed the $6 billion plateau for the first time during the fourth quarter of last year, but it came on the heels of the lowest sequential quarter-to-quarter growth rate since 2002. Search was up 10.5 percent over 2007 and the much-maligned category of display ads bounced 8 percent. However, display ads contracted 4 percent in the fourth quarter.

"The report presents a mix of positive and negative numbers, but it shows overall strength in a sector that performed well despite adverse economic conditions," said PriceWaterhouseCoopers partner David Silverman. Silverman pointed out two categories to support his view. Automotive internet spending was flat, while it was down precipitously in offline media. That could mean automakers are finding and exploiting more value online. The CPG category was up two percent, which was a "huge" gain for a lucrative category.

Now for the questions. The bureau did not position the report as a look into the future, although Wharton professor Peter Fader did look into his usually objective crystal ball. The data presented three main issues, which Fader took on:

Do the numbers show enough growth? You could argue that a 10.6 percent growth rate is below expectations, especially with the tailspin between the third and fourth quarters of last year. But Fader called the internet a "silver lining" in today's macroeconomic picture, urging IAB members to "celebrate stability." "Some numbers are up and some are down, but we don't see the wild swings that other sectors of the economy are seeing and other segments of the media are seeing," he said.

Whither display ads? Regardless of the IAB year-to-year trends, display ads took a beating when the economy got tight. In fact, CPM based ads dropped from 45 percent of the market in 2007 to 35 percent in 2008. Fader doesn't see any major concerns there. "Display ads are much more powerful than we give them credit for," he said. "Combine them with search and combine them with other calls to action and I think companies are showing a willingness to learn how to use display ads."

Where will growth come from?: Another 10 percent bounce this year would be a major affirmation of the internet's media staying power. Fader believes recent upward trends in ecommerce and more spending in CPG will help achieve more growth. "Companies are understanding that all their efforts will pay off," he said. "Just not necessarily tomorrow."

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Published 30 March, 2009 by John Gaffney

John Gaffney is US Editor at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter

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