Archive for the Category: Media

by Andy McKechnie

Communication theory has certainly evolved over the centuries, getting more and more complex as thinking has expanded. In many respects, it started with Aristotle, who said that all communication has three elements: a sender, a message, and a receiver. This, really, is the simplest model of communication that we have, as models developed later in history added in other factors, such as channel and noise. All of these models serve as accurate – and often detailed – portrayals of what happens when we communicate with each other.

While the later models are more accurate and more detailed than Aristotle’s very simple model, the fundamental elements outlined in Aristotle’s model should not be forgotten in today’s promotional communication. Oftentimes, too much emphasis is placed on the message and not the receiver. This is not to say that the message isn’t important, of course, but there needs to be a balance between the three elements in order to achieve successful communication (channel and noise can also have a great impact).

Even the most compelling message falls flat when delivered to the wrong audience. Likewise, a perfectly pinpointed target audience will not care about a message that isn’t appropriate for them.

Wasted Opportunities

In the advertising world, it is commonly accepted that there will almost always be some waste due to imbalance in the three elements of Aristotle’s model. A TV spot on American Idol, for instance, will reach plenty of people, but some of them will be the wrong people. The same goes for a homepage takeover on; millions of the right people will receive the message, but there will also be waste. This is accepted as part of the price paid for the high impact of these placements.

What I fear many advertisers are forgetting is that in addition to finding the right receivers, the message for those receivers needs to be right, as well. Sure, we can spend hours creating different concepts, testing different messages, and using different calls to action to arrive at the one perfect ad that is right for the largest number of people, but it’s almost always not going to be enough. Instead we need to be more purposeful in marrying the message to the individual receiver in a meaningful way.

Sending the right message: Know your target

Here’s an example. Consider a DVD rental/video streaming service that wants to get new customers. In order to entice folks to join, they offer a free trial. They get the word out by buying a lot of digital media and showing everyone the advertisement for the free trial offer. The problem here is that a few million people who receive the free trial offer ads are already registered customers. This mismatch between message and receiver is a great waste. Money down the drain. In the offline world, as I mentioned, this happens and is accepted as part of the cost of doing business. In the digital world, however, this should not be accepted. Why not? Because it doesn’t have to be.

The DVD/streaming video advertiser could use simple ad serving technology at the point of the ad call to determine if the particular receiver is an existing customer or not. For a new customer, serve the free trial offer as planned; however, if someone is already registered and in the fold, send them a message with a different call to action, such as a referral bonus.

This isn’t a new idea – many retail advertisers have been doing it for years, but I’m still amazed at how many big budget advertisers are failing to utilize this simple, uniquely digital tactic. In short, it takes a media buy from targeting a broad demographic, and makes it much a more personalized, one-to-one experience, based on the brand’s data about a specific individual.

Reaching Patients

Let’s not forget why we’re here, however. This is just as applicable in the health care space. A patient is highly unlikely to sign up for an offer related to a drug he/she has never heard of. Likewise, if a patient is already on script, he/she doesn’t need top level information about a basic aspect of the drug. This becomes especially wasteful in the endemic content areas, which carry a premium price tag.

The beauty of digital media buying is that we don’t have to play by the old rules, though it seems many still are. Hopefully more advertisers (and not just those in the pharma space…I’m looking at you, high-profile-DVD-rental/streaming-video company) will get a little more Aristotelian when thinking about the way they are running their digital campaigns and remember that the most successful campaigns never divorce the message from the individual receiver.

In recent months, the battle over online privacy and data collection has raged. Marketers cherish this data as a critical part of their advertising strategy while consumers and regulators consider the practice of data collection an invasion of privacy.  The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) released a solution in response to the FTC’s mandate requiring self-regulation within the industry to alert consumers when they are served an ad using targeting based on data collection.  These ads now contain an “ad-choice icon”  (right) that is clickable to an educational site on data collection and behavioral targeting and allows the user the option to opt out of ads served by that company or network.

In addition to The IAB “ad choice” icon, individual browsers are throwing their hat into the privacy ring as well.  Microsoft and Mozilla have announced that the newest version of their browsers will include a “do-not-track” option that allows users to opt out of all data collection.  Google has not announced this feature for Chrome.   While opt-outs at the browser level would seemingly allow for a one-stop solution for opt-outs, individual data companies must agree to abide by the “do-not-track” request before a user is exempt from data collection.  To date, none of these companies have publically agreed to comply.

While the IAB and NAI are attempting to create a bottom-up solution for privacy that places responsibility on advertisers and service providers, there is still the looming possibility of government mandates concerning online privacy.  John McCain and John Kerry have proposed legislation expected to reach Congress this month that would create an “online privacy bill of rights” that would go beyond individual agency self-regulation.  The bill would require user’s permission to share data as opposed to having users manually opt-out of targeting and data collection.

While Washington is in discussions with industry veterans such as Jules Polonetsky (formerly of AOL and DoubleClick) to fill the newly created role of Deputy Chief Technology officer, having the government pass legislation for an industry that is complex and constantly evolving seems futile.  Data collection and audience targeting is a complex system that should not be treated as simple practice that can be governed by a blanket of legislation that treats all data collection equally.  According to a study by The Center for Media Design, users do not view all personal data as off-limits, but instead, view data protection as a sliding scale.   Participants in the study were okay sharing data such as gender, birth date, leisure activities, and occupation, while information such as credit card, social security numbers, sexual and mental health and financial records were viewed as strictly off-limits.  Government legislation would limit data collection across all levels of this user comfort scale and eliminate much of what makes user experience online more convenient and customized.  While wide range opt outs would prevent data collection of sensitive topics, it would also eliminate practical functions such as username and password reminders or advertisements that are relevant to a user’s preferences. The process of data collection should not be viewed or regulated as a single entity.  The solution to online privacy will require deeper insight into what data users are concerned about protecting while still maintaining the customization and ease that users have come to expect from the internet.

AOL has been in the news a lot lately. And this week, the news wasn’t pretty despite a year’s worth of acquisitions and partnerships that are meant to strengthen AOL’s position in the marketplace. The news: AOL (NYSE: AOL) hit a new 52-Week low of $19 and announced it will lay off 20% of its staff.

So what’s going on at AOL? Turns out: a lot. Since Google alum, Tim Armstrong, took over AOL in April 2009, AOL has been making bold moves with a vision for being a premier destination of quality content. A recently leaked internal AOL document showed how AOL’s display advertising revenue was getting dwarfed by competitor Yahoo!. (Article “The AOL Way” was leaked on February 22, 2011.) The document laid out AOL’s strategy and basically admitted that they were sorely losing the portal wars for display advertising. Therefore, bold moves may be the only way for AOL to grow, gain relevancy among younger users, and start capitalizing on their investments in order to gain more ad revenue.

Here is a brief summary of some of the recent goings on at AOL:

1. AOL launched Project Devil and Pictela. Despite its satanic name (not loved by clients), Devil and Pictela are new display creative formats that attempt to bring in a level of content, interactivity and relevance to consumers without asking them to click off to another site. See These formats were recently heralded by the IAB as “rising stars.”

2. AOL launched PATCH – according to the New York Times, Patch “is meant to fill the void in areas where struggling local newspapers have cut back on reporting, but much of their writing and news gathering is not up to the standards of what consumers get from their traditional news sources.” Getting into the local content business appears like another bold move aimed at differentiating AOL. However, there has been a tremendous outcry that AOL is employing a sweat-shop like mentality in its handling of journalists. (See and their Editor in Chief’s response:

3. AOL partnered with Everyday Health so that EDH provides all health content on AOL properties. Announced in January of 2011, the partnership replaces AOL Health content with  Everyday Health content. The  partnership will begin on April 1, 2011. While AOL’s strategy appears to be about delivering quality content (Patch, Huffington Post, etc.) to its users, it’s clearly stepping aside in the health and wellness space. From an advertising perspective, this leaves one less viable health site to consider which may make planning deals a bit easier (since AOL health traffic was never high) though may limit negotiation leverage as one less player is vying for ad dollars.

4. AOL purchased Huffington Post – This acquisition positions Arianna Huffington to lead the newly formed The Huffington Post Media Group which will integrate all Huffington Post and AOL Content, Including News, Tech, Women, Local, Multicultural, Entertainment, Video, Community, etc. Clearly, AOL is looking to bring in a younger, more dynamic audience. (According to Comscore, 60% of AOL users are 35+).

So will all these investments pay off? Wall Street isn’t sold, while we agency planners and buyers are intrigued. AOL continues to be a publisher partner on many media plans with some very strong results. Only time will tell if this new strategy will continue to grow its user base, bring in younger demos, and help AOL shore up more ad revenue.