Online Display Ad Effectiveness: Skepticism Persists

Online Display AdvertisingAs the variety of options for online advertising have steadily increased over the years, the reputation of display advertising effectiveness has suffered. Part of this is in the statistics: abysmal clickthrough rates on many online display ads with percentages that trend toward the microscopic.

But another part is just plain intuition. People understand that when folks go online, they’re usually on a mission – whether it’s information-seeking, looking for products to purchase, or avocational pursuits.

Simply put, the “dynamic” is different than magazines, television or radio — although any advertiser will tell you that those media options also have their share of challenges in getting people to take notice and then to take action.

The perception that online display advertising is a “bad” investment when compared to search engine marketing is what’s given Google its stratospheric revenue growth and profits in recent years. And that makes sense; what better time to pop up on the screen than when someone has punched in a search term that relates to your product or service?

In the B-to-B field, the knock against display advertising is even stronger than in the consumer realm. In the business world, people have even less time or inclination to be distracted by advertising that could take them away from their mission at hand.

It doesn’t take a swath of eye-tracking studies to prove that most B-to-B practitioners have their blinders on to filter out extraneous “noise” when they’re in information-seeking mode.

This isn’t to say that B-to-B online display advertising isn’t occurring. In fact, in a new study titled Making Online Display Marketing Work for B2B, marketing research and consulting firm Forrester Research, Inc. reports that about seven in ten B-to-B interactive marketers employ online display advertising to some degree in their promotional programs.

And they do so for the same reasons that compelled these comparnies to advertise in print trade magazines in the past. According to the Forrester report, the primary objectives for online display advertising include:

 Increase brand awareness: ~49% of respondents
 Lead generation: ~46%
 Reaching key target audiences: ~46%
 Driving direct sales: ~41%

But here’s a major rub: Attitudes toward B-to-B online display advertising are pretty negative — and that definitely extends to the ad exchanges and ad networks serving the ads. Moreover, most don’t foresee any increased effectiveness in the coming years.

That may explain why Forrester found that fewer than 15% of the participants in its study reported that they have increased their online display advertising budgets in 2011 compared to 2010 – even as advertising budgets have trended upward overall.

When you look closer at display, there’s actually some interesting movement. Google has committed to a ~$390 million acquisition of display ad company Admeld. And regardless of the negative perceptions that may be out there, Google’s Ad Exchange and Yahoo’s Right Media platforms have created the ability for advertisers to bid on ad inventories based on their value to them.

Moreover, new capabilities make it easier to measure and attribute the impact of various media touchpoints — online display as well as others — that ultimately lead to conversion or sales.

But the negative perceptions about online display advertising continue, proving again that attitudes are hard to change — even in the quickly evolving world of digital advertising.

E-mail early birds? The worm may be turning differently.

Best time to deploy marketing e-mail messages.One of the great benefits of the “online everything” world in which we now live is the ability to evaluate nearly anything about marketing not with hunches or speculation, but with hard data.

A perennial question is what time of day is best to deploy marketing e-mails to customers and prospects. The higher the propensity to open and read these messages, you’re closer to the goal of converting eyeballs to clickthroughs … and to sales.

ReachMail, a Chicago-based e-mail service provider, recently studied a large sampling (~650,000) of the millions of consumer and business marketing e-mail messages it sends out for clients daily in order to determine open rate differences based on the time of day. It normalized the data to account for different time zones.

What ReachMail found was that there are differing peak open rate times on weekends versus on weekdays:

 Weekdays: Peak e-mail open rates are between ~11:30 am and ~2:00 pm.

 Weekends: E-mail open rates begin trending upward at ~11:30 am, but don’t peak until ~4:00 pm.

John Murphy, ReachMail’s president, had this to say about people’s weekday e-mail open rate behaviors: “You would think it would spike in the morning, but they’re looking at work e-mails in the morning. Once they’ve cleared out their inbox, they’re looking at marketing e-mails in the afternoon.”

ReachMail’s conclusion: It’s best to deploy weekday e-mails between 10:00 am and Noon. For weekend e-mails, deploy them between Noon and 3:00 pm.

And this additional tidbit also: Don’t assume e-mails sent during the week will perform better than those deployed over the weekend. “People’s engagement rates are up there on the weekend,” Murphy maintains. “It’s our habit of checking e-mail all the time.”

He’s sure right about that.

How the B-to-B Sales Process is Changing

In my 20+ years in industrial, commercial and other non-consumer marketing communications, I’ve witnessed more than a few “big trends” affecting the nature of the selling process in the business realm.

One of the biggest of these is the approach that customers take when evaluating products and services they might be interested in purchasing. Recent research findings about these behaviors has been published that sheds more interesting light on where things are at the moment.

A survey of ~300 B-to-B managers was conducted in late 2009 by e-Research for Marketing (E-RM) for Colman Brohan Davis, a Chicago-based marketing organization. This survey, which was limited to respondents age 35 or younger, found that only a few of the 13 tools used to research products and services represented “traditional media” – print-based resources, trade shows, or consulting with industry colleagues by phone or in person.

Furthermore, the study found that even these four tactics are losing their importance compared to the use of online social networks, which were exploding in usage.

These survey results reminded me of a comment made by Adam Needles, director of B-to-B field marketing at Silverpop, an e-mail marketing company based in Atlanta. “Somewhere around age 30 to 35, you can draw a line in the sand between people who are used to calling around to get everything and [where it’s been] all about relationships face-to-face.”

In contrast, Needles has this to say about younger staffers who conduct a great deal of the buying cycle online: “You have people whose expectation is that companies should put everything on their web sites; they should be getting real-time feeds and information, and companies should be totally integrated into … the blogosphere.”

Younger staffers tend to be influencers more than decision-makers. But this is not to diminish their importance, as they are the ones charged with conducting the research and drafting investigative report summaries and preliminary recommendations. Ferreting out information through resources like webinars and social platforms such as Twitter and blog posts, while it may seem exotic and less consequential to older colleagues, is not at all foreign to these staffers.

And we shouldn’t forget that today’s “influencer” at a company is very likely tomorrow’s “decision-maker.”

Which gets us back to the ER-M study. One big takeaway from that research was that customers are looking into all the corners of offine and online communications to find the information they feel they need to make risk-averse and “CYA” decisions that are also the successful ones that pay off well – hence building their reputations inside their company.

Tactics like direct mail marketing may seem old-hat or even quaint, but they can still be quite effective, while e-mail marketing, while fast and cheap, elicits resistance from some because they feel inundated with marketing materials that are irrelevant to their needs.

I guess it’s yet more challenging news for already-fractured marketing communications program tactics that continue to be under tight budget constraints.

B-to-B e-Newsletters: Just How Engaged are Recipients?

B-to-B e-NewslettersIn the B-to-B world, marketers are sometimes disappointed with the open rates for the e-newsletters they deploy to their customers and prospects. While some are opened by a large proportion of recipients, it’s common experience for e-newsletter open rates to hover around 20%-25%.

Does this mean that e-newsletters are a poor substitute for B-to-B print media? Unfortunately, it’s difficult to know how these results compare. After all, just because trade magazines are delivered to recipients doesn’t mean that they’re ever read.

It would be nice to compare B-to-B reader dynamics between print and online media, but with quantifiable statistics available for only one side of the equation, that’s pretty difficult.

However, GlobalSpec, the technology services company that operates a vertical search engine of engineering and industrial products, is able to provide us with a few additional clues. It has just published the results of its 2010 Economic Outlook Survey, which queried more than 2,000 U.S. technical, engineering, manufacturing and industrial professionals on a variety of business topics.

As part of the GlobalSpec survey, respondents were asked about their e-newsletter reading habits. And it turns out that more than half of the respondents (~55%) reported that they read work-related e-newsletters daily or several times a week.

Another 30% of respondents reported that they read e-newsletters once a week or several times per month. That leaves only 15% reporting that they rarely or never read e-newsletters.

What’s more, the readership of e-newsletters appears in increasing. In GlobalShop’s 2009 survey, only ~40% of respondents reported reading e-news daily or several times per week. So the increase in activity over just the past year is substantial.

The takeaway news is that more people in the B-to-B segment are “engaged” with e-newsletters than ever before. Whether you’re achieving above or below the 20%-25% open rate threshold is likely a function of the quality of your content … along with how good you’re doing with targeting the right names in your database.

Where are B-to-B buyers these days? Online, of course.

Everyone knows that online consumer sales have exploded over the past five years. But what about B-to-B customers? Where are they going when it comes to buying the products they need?

Recent market research reveals that they’re going online, too … and they’re migrating there in a hurry.

In a survey sponsored by MarketingSherpa and ZoomInfo and conducted by Enquiro, a search engine marketing and research firm, a cross-section of B-to-B respondents was asked how they prefer purchasing the items they order all the time for their businesses.

The results were a blowout: nearly two-thirds (63%) prefer to order online. The remaining respondents are divided between preferring to order over the phone and ordering in-person from a sales representative.

Faced with such an overwhelming preference for online buying, the logical follow-up question is whether B-to-B firms are focusing their tactics and allocating resources to online sales in the same proportional effort. In many cases, it’s not even close.

As often as not, B-to-B firms have treated online not as the core of their sales engine, but more like an incremental revenue channel. Frequently, e-business is treated as a separate silo. This makes it less likely for online to interfere (or otherwise cause “issues”) with traditional sales channels. But it also makes it a lot harder for online to be treated with the critical importance that it clearly deserves in today’s sales environment.

And even if B-to-B firms don’t sell directly to end-users but rely on reps, distributors or dealers instead, they need to make sure that their marketing partners are making the necessary investments in online sales functions to support those end-users.

Consider how quickly B-to-B customers have moved online — not only to research products but also to purchase them. By moving too cautiously, B-to-B firms risk being outflanked by Internet “pure plays” — some of which seemingly spring out of nowhere to achieve prominence in only a few short months or years.

To quote a phrase from a nursery rhyme, “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick …” Hopefully, you have a Jack (or Jill) in your marketing department already. Now, give them the tools and the resources to succeed.