Online Advertising: Questions of Time and Doctor Who

It’s difficult to talk about time without stumbling into cliched phrases, but it seems right to talk about the importance of time for two reasons. The importance of time-spent cropped up in a recent survey conducted by the IPA that ranked the best  in the industry. I should take this chance to congratulate the guys at InSkin, who pipped us to the post by a mere 0.7%. Such a close run race shows that clients really do have a choice of quality partners.

But given that the technologies we use is broadly similar – it’s the X factors that create the differentiation, and most of these X factors are determined by the relationship with the client: the quality of brief responses, the delivery of innovative content solutions,  proactive communication of opportunities, regular constructive contact with the sales team, and the all-important agency/media owner partnership.

It’s nice to know that in an age where we devote so many column inches to algorithms and automated process, there is still a recognised premium value attached to spending time with a client and building those relationships.

Performance rankings like the IPA Digital Media Owner Survey are useful for clients and for those being polled. We may not have come first, but I’ll take second place with 0.7% to close in on, and it gives our teams something to strive for next year.

My second observation about the importance of time-spend came from a more unusual direction, namely Saturday evening family TV. I don’t know how it happened, but somehow Doctor Who has become cool. The ultimate sci-fi geek show about a time traveling, humanoid alien known as the Doctor, returned to great fanfare as the lynchpin of BBC One’s Saturday night schedule, and it turns out that this is a show celebrating 50 years since it began on grainy black and white TV screens in 1963.

This renewed interest in the errant Doctor with his police box-shaped time machine, coupled with the twice-yearly ritual of the clocks changing for British Summer Time taking place recently, reminded me of the fascination we have for measuring, documenting and playing with the concept of time, especially in media (how’s that for a segue?)

For at least the last 10 years, everyone in the industry has been talking about the idea of being time-poor, advertisers have to fight that much harder to get the attention of time-poor consumers. Yet, media is not sold based on how much time people spend engaging with the content. I’m not talking about buying a 30-second TV spot, or a 15-second radio ad here. I’m talking about people reading an article, playing a game, or watching a video.

Advertisers are still, despite all the new research into online habits, buying into supposed impact strategies – the worst offenders are homepage takeovers (on content site homepages – the traditional portals and media properties).  People don’t seem really interested in the fact that the average time spent on these content pages can be fractions of a second. If you go to MSN’s homepage, you’re probably there to go to Outlook (formerly Hotmail), similarly with Yahoo! or AOL. If you’re on a showbiz gossip site like MailOnline or DigitalSpy, you’re busy scanning down the page for headlines or images that catch your eye.

And this is where the false logic of numbers comes into play. The unique visitor scores for these kinds of home-pages will look reassuringly high, even though there’s little quality time spent with the content. Advertisers like the idea of a campaign that’s “impactful” (even if it isn’t a real word), and by “impactful’ they mean big.

‘Impact’ and ‘big’ have, in the online display world, become dangerously interchangeable, and more often than not it simply means three pieces of repeated creative on the same homepage. There’s still a lot of stunt display stuff that goes on – but these stunt/impactful ads are rarely user-initiated and are often viewed negatively by the consumer. Yet the perceived wisdom is that this style of advertising is somehow more effective. But why is so little value attached to how long people spend with the content?

This comes back to the display advertising’s roots as purely direct response. When it was purely about DR, it didn’t matter if a client spent 0.2 or 20 seconds with an ad, provided they completed the action. But today the sophistication of online content environments, ad unit technology and audience targeting, means that there are massive opportunities here for online advertising to become a valuable part of any branding exercise, if we can just get advertisers to start thinking like the nation’s favourite Time Lord Doctor to recognise that the longer a user spends with a brand, the more valuable that engagement. That, I am sure, would make the Doctor feel a little happier next time he drops in on Earth.

Paps Shaikh, European General Manager of Say Media