Taking It Offline

If baseball is the thinking person’s game, then online advertising is the thinking person’s medium. Much like the national pastime, part of the draw of online advertising comes from the ability to break down performance into limitless particles of useful (and useless) information, such as batting average with runners in scoring position after the 7th inning, or the clickthrough rate differential for an ad run at 8 a.m. versus 8 p.m.

But just as it is impossible to figure out why combining the best players won’t make for the best team (just ask George Steinbrenner), determining the most effective roles that online and off-line marketing should play to produce the best possible results remains largely a mystery. Online advertising revenue continues to close the gap with off-line spending, resulting in heightened interest in wanting to figure out how best to integrate performance marketing with off-line campaigns.

Integration Issues

During the first half of 2006, online advertising revenue grew by 37 percent over the prior year according to the Internet Advertising Bureau, and the dawn of video ads will likely further accelerate growth. Advertisers flocked online because they could get more precise data about ad effectiveness than through broadcast or print.

“Before, everyone had to take [ad effectiveness] on faith,” says Mark Williams, a founding partner of San Francisco interactive agency Mortar. But after seeing the low (1 to 2 percent) clickthrough rates, some advertisers ask about putting more resources into off-line, which he views as a mistake.

Focusing only on clicks as a performance metric doesn’t tell the whole story, according to Williams, who says that as with off-line campaigns, assessing online performance should consider factors such as brand awareness and the ability to generate word of mouth. “CPM blindness” as Williams calls it, is when advertisers get lost inside the numbers of what is known about certain aspects of a campaign instead of looking at the overall picture. Many people who saw an online ad will eventually go into a store and make a purchase, and the advertiser will never be able to connect the dots, according to Williams.

One method for tying off-line to online campaigns is to promote custom URLs in print or through broadcast and track the number of responses. Advertisers have adapted the longstanding practice from newspapers that printed unique phone numbers to track leads.

Marketing services company Who’s Calling, of Kirkland, Wash., develops custom landing pages that can be promoted on-or off-line to track individual behaviors, according to CEO Stuart DePina. Newspaper or TV ads include links to pages that contain unique phone numbers, enabling the original media source to be identified.

DePina says client Chrysler sent out direct mail that included a link to custom landing pages for different vehicles, so that when online shoppers called the listed phone number, the agent answering would know in which vehicle they had interest.

Tracking customers through unique pages “helps to build demographic information from the start,” DePina says, resulting in a greater likelihood of moving the buying process further upstream.

Michael Stalbaum, CEO of marketing services company UnREAL Marketing, says promoting websites off-line can become even more effective when combined with search engine marketing. His client Synova Healthcare was running radio ads to promote an online coupon for a menopause test kit without much success, which Stalbaum attributes to the inability of people to write down a website address while driving.

After buying keywords related to menopause testing, the number of coupons downloaded per week more than tripled, according to Stalbaum. By integrating campaigns, Stalbaum says you may not reach more people, but touching them multiple times can increase the results.

Advertisers whose off-line campaigns are limited to promoting custom URLs can be disappointed, according to Mortar’s Williams. If an advertiser gets a low response rate, it “creates the opposite of what you want because it gives the impression that it doesn’t work,” so Williams recommends against the practice.

While being able to quantify the interaction of off-line and online may be difficult, Williams says every campaign – whether for a brick-and-mortar or online-only seller – should include online and off-line components to maximize its effectiveness. “Online brands that take themselves seriously have to go off-line,” he says. For example, Travelocity and Yahoo recently launched integrated campaigns with multi-million-dollar buys in print and television.

Translating Word Of Mouth

Off-line campaigns that emphasize branding can have a snowball effect when used in conjunction with affiliate programs and search engine marketing, according to Ed Weisberg, vice president of e-commerce for Pingo, a company that sells prepaid calling cards online. Weisberg says the company has been buying banners ads and keywords on search engines as well as working with affiliates for two years.

This summer the company decided to advertise on billboards and in subways in cities where there is a heavy concentration of its target customers – those who make many long distance phone calls. The hope was to expand the audience by getting people in the communities with large Indian and Chinese populations to talk about the calling card savings since “not everyone uses search engines,” Weisberg says. Pingo representatives also attended ethnic festivals such as parades and carnivals and handed out promotional materials to reinforce branding. The company saw a surge in orders coming from the cities where the company was advertising off-line.

Weisberg coordinated the effort with affiliate managers, allowing them to put their own branding on the cards, and to develop call-to-action strategies where searches based on the word-of-mouth campaign could turn into special offers such as coupons. The off-line advertising also attracted new affiliates, according to Weisberg.

“If we have someone to reach, we’ll be less successful in reaching them if we only advertise in one place,” Dave Evans, co-founder of social media company Digital Voodoo, says. Evans claims an effective method of leveraging consumer buzz is to provide information that stimulates interest online and then use offline marketing to encourage people to do word-of-mouth marketing through their online and off-line social networks.

According to Evans, online advertising can respond quickly to negative press or word of mouth. If bloggers take a company to task, their message can rapidly become widespread, so online advertising is a better method of reacting more quickly than off-line.

While off-line campaigns can help build awareness, online advertising can be more effective in prompting sales because they reach people at the time when they are looking to buy, according to Gian Fulgoni, chairman of comScore Networks. “In the off-line world it is difficult to put an ad in [search] context,” says Fulgoni, whose company measures advertising and media performance. The exceptions are advertisements in print directories such as the Yellow Pages, he says.

Because there is not a reliable method to track the effectiveness of off-line campaigns of an entire population, comScore works with a panel of representative households and tracks their online behavior, Fulgoni says. Software that tracks online journeys is installed on the panel’s computers. The company measures how many people search for and buy particular products before and after a television or print ad runs in their area. Panel members are also surveyed about their subsequent off-line purchases as well, according to Fulgoni.

The effectiveness of television advertising can be greatly enhanced by reinforcing the message through online video advertising, Fulgoni says. “Video [ads] will make things really move in search,” he says, adding that the company is developing metrics for tracking video ad performance.

To reach audiences who spend a lot of time online, video ads are becoming a substitute for TV campaigns, according to Fulgoni. “Once you have sight, sound and motion [in online ads]” advertisers may not need to run television campaigns, he says.

An integrated campaign for the 2007 Dodge Nitro SUV demonstrated the effectiveness of using video on multiple platforms. Dodge geared the car ad toward male buyers and shot a series of video spots that would be used on broadcast and satellite TV and online, according to Mark Spencer, a senior marketing manager at Dodge. To reach the 30- something male demographic that spends many hours per week online, “we needed multiple screens, not just TV,” Spencer says.

The campaign was first introduced online. Dodge built on the experience from a previous campaign for the Caliber by increasing the number of videos online so that the experience online was similar to the television spots, says Spencer. When Dodge ran Nitro ads during the World Series that directed viewers to the website, traffic increased by 40 percent, according to Spencer.

The same creatives were used off-line and online to generate word-of-mouth buzz, says Spencer. “Our strategy was to be consistent … so that enough people will talk about [the car],” he says.

The TV campaign, which ran for 90 days, included spots run during programming that skews to younger males, including the NFL, NASCAR, and NBC’s “Law and Order”. Print ads that promoted the website ran in publications geared toward African-Americans and Hispanic audiences, Spencer says. Dodge’s integrated strategy also includes promoting the Nitro through the NHL 2K7 video game, according to Spencer.

The online campaign, which represented 20 percent of the total advertising dollars, included pre-roll and click-to-play videos on MSN, YouTube and The Onion. To move potential customers from the website upstream into the buying process, Dodge introduced click-to-talk and click-to-chat features that include the ability to pass customers from Dodge representatives to local dealers, Spencer says. (The campaign was only a few weeks old at the time of publication, so results were unavailable.)

Measuring Clicks To Sales

Just as it is impossible to accurately determine the number of online purchases that were initiated in response to someone seeing a billboard ad or radio spot, the ability to track the offline purchases of those who see online ads effectively ends when people step away from the keyboard.

While it is common for retailers to ask buyers where they first heard about the company or product at the point of purchase, this practice does not indicate the true influence of online advertising as consumers who first heard about a product off-line may have had that message reinforced several times online.

Who’s Calling’s DePina says that because the Internet (largely through search) is used more frequently for research than for purchasing, tracking off-line purchases gives a better indication of the effectiveness of a campaign. For example, some keywords drive clicks used to get more information, while others prompt consumers to make phone calls, he says.

Because only 7 percent of consumer purchases are done online, search marketers need to determine how their activities can result in off-line purchases, according to comScore’s Fulgoni. For example, a survey of comScore panel members showed that 25 percent of people who searched for consumer electronics equipment online made a purchase within 90 days, and 90 percent of those transactions occurred off-line.

Some integrated campaigns mistakenly treat the online and off-line worlds similarly, according to Digital Voodoo’s Evans. For example, companies that sell beer that advertise on the websites of sports networks that they advertise with on TV are missing an opportunity. Instead of this “TV thinking” of lumping consumers together into a category, the Web offers many more options for targeting people based on their individual preferences, he says.

“I expect to be marketed to as if I’m an individual,” Evans says. For example, advertisers could employ behavioral targeting or other tracking mechanisms to better understand the audience.

JOHN GARTNER is a Portland, Ore.-based freelance writer who contributes to Wired News, Inc., MarketingShift and is the Editor of Matter-mag.com.