Economists, politicians and media types are no longer arguing whether or not the economy is in a recession. Instead most are debating how long it will last.
If recent trends continue, the prognosis is relatively dismal for real estate values, gas prices and the unemployment rate. And as corporations and consumers grow frugal, cutbacks in advertising threaten the vitality of everything from cable operators to newspapers. Internet analysts, wondering about the ripple effect on the industry, offer a variety of opinions. While some think a recession would not have any affect on online advertising and marketing, others feel that it could have a significant impact – negative or positive – on the sector.
Slashed traditional advertising budgets are already apparent. TNS Media Intelligence found that ad spending in the fourth quarter of 2007 declined .1 percent from the fourth quarter of 2006.
But a Direct Marketing Association’s Quarterly Business Review survey in the fourth quarter of 2007 uncovered good news for online marketers: 50 percent said they would increase email marketing, 44 percent would increase database segmentation and 35 percent would increase spending on search engine optimization in 2008. And PQ Media found that spending on alternative media such as social networks, lead generation advertising and consumer-generated media is expected to grow by 20.2 percent in 2008 to $88.24 billion.
These findings reflect a long held belief that there will be a shift of marketing dollars from traditional media to the Web. Some believe this move would protect online companies from feeling the effects of a recession. Standard & Poor’s Internet analyst Andy Liu noted at the company’s 2008 Media Summit that he expects online ad revenues to grow by 20 percent this year – recession or not.
However, not all indicators (or analysts) are so bullish. In March, market researcher eMarketer lowered its estimates for U.S. online advertising market by nearly $2 billion, predicting that it will grow $25.8 billion, as opposed to $27.5 billion, in 2008.
Ability to Measure
Advertisers are shifting online to not only reach their audience, but because Internet advertising costs less and is trackable. Founder of Seer Interactive, Wil Reynolds, predicts a trend where any medium that offers less tracking will lose dollars to areas that offer more accountable results. Effectiveness can be measured by clicks, impressions, registrations and purchases, which are very attractive to bean-counting advertisers.
Brad Waller, vice president of business and affiliate development for AdJungle.com, points out that General Motors, the country’s third largest advertiser, announced it is shifting half of its $3 billion budget into digital and one-to-one marketing within the next three years. He claims this is the beginning of things to come, noting that the market online is growing faster than any other spend.
Founder of FatWallet.com, Tim Storm, says online advertising can be measured but offline initiatives, like direct mail, can’t be tracked. Online campaigns offer ROI down to the penny – so advertisers don’t wonder where their budgets were spent.
Paying for Performance
Even more appealing during belt-tightening days is performance marketing, where advertisers only have to pay when there is an action that is commissionable or measurable. Storm says he thinks there will be a shift of spending toward performance marketing, as opposed to advertising on a CPM basis. He doesn’t think Internet advertising will be affected by the recession as long as advertisers don’t look at the spending as a budgeted line item – which tips the scales in favor of performance marketing.
Online marketing consultant Sam Harrelson agrees that CPM big budget ad buys will suffer in 2008 and performance marketing will continue to increase its reach, effectiveness and popularity.
In fact, the Interactive Advertising Bureau statistics for the first half of 2007 indicate that "CPM deals" were replaced by "performance deals" as the leading pricing model for Internet advertising. In 2006, CPM deals comprised 48 percent of the overall total while performance deals (such as CPA) were at 46 percent. However, in 2007, performance deals made up 50 percent of deals while CPM fell to 45 percent.
There is evidence that performance marketing initiatives such as paid search are becoming more popular. OneUpWeb.com found that 48 percent of all U.S. online advertising spending in 2007 went toward paid search, and predictions are even higher for 2008.
Although paid search is considered more resistant to cuts than other advertising because it’s performance based, some think it is not immune to decreased spending. Advertisers could reason that people are less likely to surf the Internet for potential purchases during an economic downturn.
In March, comScore, the Internet ratings firm, reported that Google’s paid clicks fell .3 percent between January 2007 and January 2008, even as the number of searches rose 40 percent in the same period. As recently as April, Google’s ad clicks were rising at a 60 percent clip.
The industry panicked that Google, considered a bellwether for the overall sector, was being affected by the cyclical economic forces of the overall market.
It’s possible that Google is tightening the reins on clicks to combat click fraud and generate better clicks in general. And Hitwise found that the percentage of traffic going from Google to retail shopping sites is actually increasing. Since the bulk of paid search advertising is shopping related, the Hitwise data draws a different conclusion than the comScore data.
But cost per click has its challenges – there continues to be big inflation numbers. As more folks jump in, the costs get higher.
It’s possible that there won’t be less activity in paid search but there might be less money spent on bids. Seer Interactive’s Reynolds offers an example: the same number of marketers could bid on a term like "mortgage" but spend less money doing it. So if in the past a marketer paid $1,000 for 10 leads that convert, today that $1,000 dollars would only buy five leads.
Reynolds doesn’t believe this will cause marketers to abandon paid search, but thinks it could cause them to lower their bid to spend $750 for those five bids – reasoning that "smart marketers always will spend up until they max out their ROI." Interestingly enough, Reynolds says the saved $250 isn’t likely to go to buy radio or display ads. From what he has seen, people looking to rein in their paid search move into SEO as their next step.
Reynolds has seen shopping and e-commerce people moving from paid to SEO – and believes the affiliate space might have a good fallout as well because the closer a marketing channel is tied to results, the easier it will be for managers to get funding for it.
Survival of the Fittest
Google has boomed over the past few years because of search engine marketing – so it is possible that search engines will fare well during an economic downturn if paid search continues to be popular. Yahoo, Google, MSN and AOL have worked to become one-stop shops for advertisers by building up ad networks with targeting and tracking capabilities. David Hallerman, eMarketer senior analyst, notes that when "the portal is both destination and network, perhaps advertisers can get all they need without straying – at least that’s what the Big Four hope for."
Many niche sites have flourished while they get better at improving targeting to meet the needs of their clients. Reynolds says that vertical sites, if they can show ROI for marketers (even with less traffic) will start to get dollars if markets like Google become to expensive to play in.
Specific verticals that offer people a way out of a bad situation such as employment sites, job training sites, and mortgage refinance loans and debt consolidation sites like LowerMyBills, could become more in demand. Also well positioned are sites that offer people efficiencies in a weak economy such as comparison shopping engines and coupon sites.
FatWallet’s Storm believes that coupon sites could fare well this year – he points out that some of FatWallet’s best years were during the last downturn of 2001 and 2002. When the economy is in a slump, people gravitate towards being more cost conscious. For example, Storm has read reports that the craft industry does well because people make their own quilts – it is both entertainment and fulfills a need.
So far this year, Storm has not noticed any spending shifts – booms or drop offs – for FatWallet. Electronics and technology continue to be FatWallet’s strong categories as do other categories like Health & Beauty and eBay.
Insurance is another sector well positioned to weather an economic storm. Jon Kelly, president of SureHits, an ad network for insurance and loans, thinks it could increase because consumers are adopting the Internet as a primary means of buying insurance. Even technology laggards, who in the past surfed the Internet to find the best quote but picked up the phone to complete the transaction, are purchasing through e-commerce.
Another reason for Kelly’s bullish prognosis: "When the economy turns rough, people start looking for the best deals on insurance and they turn to the Web to do it." Kelly explains that auto and home insurance look particularly strong over the next few years because consumer demand for them does not drop in a recession – car insurance is mandated by law and home insurance is mandated by mortgage companies.
Kelly predicts that there will be increased Internet spending by insurance companies as the battleground for customers moves online. He thinks the areas where they will increase spending are paid search and affiliate and ad networks with a strong vertical focus like IndustryBrains, Quigo and SureHits Ad Network.
AdJungle’s Waller has seen record growth on its classifieds site, EPage – with 30 percent growth in revenue with January 2008 over January 2007 and an increase in the average revenue per user. He has seen growth in areas that want to get rid of excess inventory and says that in a tight market, people buy more items used than new. Listings for home-based businesses that offer ways to earn extra income are popular – like "how to make money from your laptop."
EPage makes money from advertisers paying for more exposure, as opposed to getting a cut of the purchase price. Advertisers pay to have their ad ranked higher on the page – when advertisers have success; they are willing to pay more.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that real estate would be hard hit in a recession. But Michael Stark, the founder and president of PostYourProperty.com, says that just because the housing market is tanking doesn’t mean there will be a negative effect on the online real estate vertical.
His real estate sites focus on the for-sale-by-owner (FSBO) market, which accounts for approximately 15 percent of U.S. real estate and says that traffic to his sites continues to grow despite the recession because of the focus on enabling the "do it yourself " FSBO movement. In fact, the crumbling prices, slow sales and a credit crunch in 2008 will make the FSBO option attractive to an increasing number of buyers and sellers.
Foreclosures are good for Stark’s sites because more postings mean more inventory, which means more advertising for his sites. Advertisers on Stark’s sites include people trying to sell their house, brokers, agents and lenders looking for new business.
Waller says that lead generation companies like Epic Advertising (formerly Azoogle), XY7, CPA Empire and Leadpiles could do well because people are buying and selling leads for real estate.
Performance marketers should feel confident that their industry is well positioned to weather a recession although things could get a bit tougher. Affiliates might get scrutinized more heavily – marketers don’t want to pay affiliate commissions if they find evidence that a paid search campaign created the sale. "Many marketers are estimating the ‘influence’ of their affiliates and zeroing out commission when other marketing campaigns are involved," Lee Gientke writes on ReveNews.com.
Some industry watchers say that marketing will move more in-house as knowledge of how to do search or affiliate marketing continues to spread out into wider communities instead of just specialized networks or agencies.