There was a big hoo-ha last week as eMarketer’s recent research concluded that portals remain effective ad platforms. This came as Yahoo! was all over the press for attributing their financial recovery to a revival in online advertising spend.

Display advertising on Yahoo! has grown by 20% this quarter and the four big portals – Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and AOL – all took in a total of $191,707 million in the US in advertising revenue between 2008 and 2011.

I am genuinely baffled as to why so many advertisers continue to spend so much money on generic portal websites when their budget could be so much better spent on coherent targeting of their online ad campaigns.

To be honest, I suspect that the culture of apathy or ‘playing it safe’ that seems to have emerged in the ad planning and buying industry since the recession is to blame. With tightened ad budgets, too many planners and buyers have turned into number counters, obsessed with traffic figures and scared to take risks.

Instead of taking the time to strategically assess the most appropriate online platforms to meet their client’s needs, many are taking the easy option of purchasing ad space on these generic web portals, and then using last click figures as proof of the campaign’s success, and these stats, as we all know, are hardly the most revealing metrics.   

It’s all very well equating the success of portal websites with the amount of traffic on the sites, but if you’re not reaching the right people, the campaign is a complete waste of time.

Our own research has found that there has been a 40% decline in people paying attention to adverts on major portal websites, bringing the total of users that never or hardly ever pay attention to ads on portals to a shocking 88%. Yes, chances are that a proportion of the audience visiting the portal websites will be your target audience, but audiences on generic sites like Yahoo! just aren’t as engaged as those on special interest websites.

Online audiences have moved on. It’s hardly news that audiences are fragmenting and choosing their own media diet through visiting their chosen websites. More often than not these are special interest sites that garner an engaged audience. These aren’t big major portal sites.

However, ask a planner what’s most important, their client’s marketing goals or reaching websites with high volumes of traffic, and, I’d bet if they were honest, nine times out of ten they will say reaching high volumes of traffic. Frankly, it’s not really good enough. 

The other problem, of course, is the focus on preferred media partner agreements which I previously wrote about on this blog. In Marketing Magazine last week, Andrew Walmsley brought up the problem of media agency deals once again, emphasising the negative effects these types of deals can have on agencies’ clients: “advertisers get media to fit the agency's deal rather than their [clients] marketing objectives”.

As, generally, the media owners who embark on these types of agreements with advertisers are the big media players - the Yahoos and the MSNs of this world – this very type of commercial partnership stops planner and buyers from fully realising their clients’ marketing needs, as they are required to placed a certain value of their clients’ adverts with one of these big portals. 

We live in a highly creative industry and we need to incentivise and empower advertisers to think like marketers instead of data counters. We need to be encouraging best practice and common sense in going beyond the obvious and actually thinking about who would be the most relevant and engaged audience for clients’ needs. Apart from anything else, that’s the fun part of the work!

Planners/buyers are suckered in by the wider big brands of Yahoo! or MSN. However, just focusing on audience numbers is not the way to implement an effective campaign. The internet is not an old fashioned, above-the-line, broadcast medium. 

Portal advertising does, of course, have its place, however in the long run, those brands that will be the most successful are the ones whose advertising is creatively and intelligently targeted.  

Harvey Sarjant

Published 6 May, 2010 by Harvey Sarjant

Harvey Sarjant is managing partner at Addvantage Media and a guest blogger at Econsultancy.

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